Re-unionize the American workplace? In a word, no

September 01, 1997|By Leo Troy

NEWARK, N.J. -- The success of the Teamsters' strike at United Parcel Service has prompted union leaders, columnists, journalists and academics to predict a resurgence of unionism.

Will it happen? In a word, no.

On the contrary, more erosion in the share of private-sector jobs that are unionized can be expected. Global competition and structural changes in labor markets, the forces that have brought organized labor to its current low ebb, will not only continue, but grow.

Unionization in the American private-sector work force has declined from its 1953 peak of 36 percent of the jobs to 10 percent today. In raw numbers, there were 17 million card-carrying union members in 1970; there are 9.4 million today. By the beginning of the coming century, the union share will probably fall to 7 percent, just what it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

The AFL-CIO has a dual strategy for revival: to organize non-union workers, and to amend labor law to facilitate organizing. Changing the law will require replacing Republicans with Democrats in both houses of Congress in 1998. When he took office, the new AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney, announced plans to raise $35 million to promote that objective.

The re-election of Bill Clinton to the White House last year assured the labor federation of an active supporter of its legislative goals. But even if it is successful in electing a sympathetic Congress next year and passing new laws, it won't reverse labor's decline.

Consider the Canadian experience. Its laws, on both the federal and provincial levels, are more pro-union, than those of the United States, yet private-sector unions have steadily lost ground, both in numbers and percentage of the work force -- even the province of Quebec, which has the most interventionist, pro-union labor law north of the Rio Grande. Unionism's decline in Canada has been later and lighter than in the United States, but that's because the market forces that undermine unionism reached Canada later.

How about the labor federation's organizing strategy, toward which Mr. Sweeney in 1995 announced a $20 million effort. That, too, has failed so far.

Strangely, Mr. Sweeney has targeted mushroom and strawberry workers for unionization, turning away from the industrial workers in manufacturing and construction who were the historic backbone of unions, and from the growing professional and technical workers in the private sector who will typify the labor market of the next century. The Teamsters have announced their intention to organize workers in the apple orchards of the West.

The market of the past

Not only is it difficult to organize farm workers because of their high turnover and low skills, it is difficult to see these groups as the basis for rebuilding organized labor in the private economy of the future. In short, organized labor is looking toward the labor market of past, not of the future.

Meantime, the best measure of the organizing success, the number of National Labor Relations Board representation elections held and the number won by unions, have decreased during Mr. Sweeney's presidency.

Another setback for labor's expectations in rebuilding the union movement is the fact that even the public-sector unions, mostly government workers thought to be virtually immune to market forces, have lost some ground with trends to trim government payrolls and contract services out to private suppliers.

In general, then, organized labor, both in the private and public sectors, comprises one group of Clinton supporters that cannot say it is better off after four and a half years of Clintonomics. Indeed, union labor might be hard pressed to identify the century toward which Mr. Clinton's famous metaphorical bridge is headed.

Leo Troy teaches economics at Rutgers University, Newark.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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