Labor seeks its old clout

Staying Ahead

April 22, 1996|By JANE BRYANT QUINN

NEW YORK -- Can labor unions recapture the allegiance of American workers? An optimistic John Sweeney, new president of the AFL-CIO, thinks conditions are ripe to stanch the moribund movement's decline. Workers who thought they could do without unions are ready, he thinks, to reconsider.

"It's out of a sense of crisis in their own lives, their job insecurity, their economic problems and their frustration," he said.

"They see stocks booming, productivity improving and executive compensation going up while they're not getting their piece of the pie."

These trends are hardly new. Real wages for workers have been eroding for 20 years. Corporations have been restructuring and firing workers wholesale for about the past 10 years.

Yet labor has been surprisingly quiet. Unemployment has fallen, which means people have found other jobs -- although often at a lower wage. Younger workers adjusted their lives to the economic realities by marrying later, having fewer children and creating the two-income couple as America's marital standard. Furloughed older workers took early retirement and supplemented their pensions with lower-wage or part-time work.

All during this period, union membership declined. Unions couldn't protect all the members they had and showed little interest in recruiting new ones. Most of them also ignored the women, minorities and immigrants who made up a growing portion of the work force.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a rising percentage of union members turned to the political right, in support of its conservative social and anti-government agenda. They seemed not to care about FTC the right's hostility to traditional union concerns such as enforcing the laws on workplace safety or making it hard for employers to replace striking workers.

So Sweeney has a job on his hands. "For us, it's now or never," he says. "The situation deteriorated gradually, but is now so bad that it's finally hit home among union leaders that things have to change." A mere 14.9 percent of the work force is unionized today, compared with nearly 30 percent in the 1960s.

At the AFL-CIO, Sweeney is himself a change -- winning the presidency last October in the federation's first contested election. To bring labor back from irrelevance, he needs two things: more members and more members who vote for politicians with pro-labor records.

The conservatives have offered workers a compelling vision of why there's a growing gap between their wages and those of the well-to-do. It's the fault, they say, of big government, big deficits, big tax bills and welfare.

"That's fantasy," Sweeney snaps. "That hasn't caused the wage gap." What's more, he says, "our members who voted for some of the freshmen in Congress in 1994 didn't vote to see their Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education and environment spending go down the tubes."

To get out that message, he's allotting $35 million to political campaigning this year, supported in part by assessing the AFL-CIO's 78 national unions at 15 cents a member each month.

The money won't be spent in support of particular candidates, although the AFL-CIO has officially endorsed the Clinton/Gore ticket. Instead, Sweeney is embarking on an education and advertising campaign to persuade union members to give more weight to labor issues when they vote.

To this end, he's running focus groups, to find out how to appeal to union members; recruiting local political organizers; and promoting a 1996 Union Summer, when 1,000 young people will go to work on union issues.

He also is allocating $20 million over two years to organize new workplaces, especially the women, minorities and exploited immigrants that labor spurned years ago.

Management has dozens of effective ways to discourage, stall and defeat unionizing efforts, including illegally firing activists on trumped-up charges of poor work performance. To fight back, Sweeney plans to use tactics borrowed from the feminist and civil rights movements, including demonstrations and civil disobedience.

His success, however, hinges on persuading the public that labor is moving not selfishly but to right a wrong.

"I am very confident about it," he says. "If we recognize our faults and change according to the needs of the times, we're going to turn the whole scene around."

Write to Jane Bryant Quinn at: Newsweek, 444 Madison Ave., 18th floor, New York, N.Y. 10022.

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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