Unions, dethroned

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The British elections, coming on top of the recent West German elections and the Reagan win in the United States in 1980, have confirmed the most important single political fact of these times in the Western world. Organized labor is no longer the dominant political force in the Western democracies.

It reached its period of dominance out of the great depression of the '30s. Its heyday ran from the end of World War II to the mid or late '60s. The date of decline varies in different countries. In Britain, the Labour Party reached its voting peak in 1966 and has been slipping steadily ever since.

One startling fact about the vote in Britain last week is that the Labour Party failed to win the votes of a majority of members of the trade unions. Equally startling is that it failed to pull a majority in even those constituencies where unemployment is highest.

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The statistics in that election have not been fully compiled as yet, but early indications are that the Tories actually won about a third of the trade union vote and a fourth of people who are unemployed. Many of those who couldn't bring themselves to vote conservative apparently voted for either the Liberals or the Social Democrats.

Partly, the decline of the British Labour Party is due to its own internal dissensions and its disastrous exhibition of those differences during the campaign. But, of course, there is more to it than just that. The decline of organized labor shows up in the US in a steady drop in union membership. It is now below the halfway mark among wage earn-ers.

It showed up during the 1980 US election in the number of blue-collar workers who voted Republican, probably for the first time in their lives.

Plainly, the wage earners of the US, Britain, and West Germany all have one thing in common. They no longer feel that the parties which have traditionally championed them are any longer essential to their continued welfare.

One reason is that Republicans in the US, the Tories in Britain, and the Christian Democrats in West Germany have all accepted the main features of the New Deal or ''welfare state.''

Mrs. Thatcher in Britain has never proposed to dismantle ''the dole'' (unemployment compensation) or the National Health system, or any other of the major gains which the working population has won through political action since the depression.

President Reagan in the US has tried to restrain the rate of advance of the welfare system, but he has not even tried to push it back - much less undo it. He participated in a reforming of the social security system which slowed the rate of increase in compensation, but social security pensions are still ''indexed'' to inflation as they are in Britain.

The New Deal is not being undone. But the time when benefits could automatically be raised every year, with or without real justification, is over. Labor no longer is afraid that Republicans, Tories, or Christian Democrats will take away from them their big gains. It has become safe for them to vote for those parties.

Obviously, there is more to it than just no longer being afraid of the right-wing parties. Consciously or subconsciously, a lot of wage earners in all three of the major Western democracies now feel that the economic health of the country is the vital foundation of individual well-being. Plainly, a lot of British workers have lost confidence in the ability of the Labour Party to revive the British economy. Some of them, at least a third, must have concluded that Mrs. Thatcher's Toryism can do more to save their jobs, and produce new ones, than the old pump priming and nationalization schemes of the Labour Party.

The net effect of these changes is to restore to the Western economies one element which had much to do with the industrial growth of the West. People work for rewards, and from fear of being unemployed. Enterprise capitalism rests on both the carrot of reward and the goad of fear, fear of a lower standard of living.

Communism's slogan of ''to each according to his need'' attempts to run an economy without benefit of the goad. Unemployment is a powerful goad. Mrs. Thatcher campaigned for greater productivity, and for returning nationalized industries to the private sector. She did not campaign for full employment. British Labour promised full employment by economic pump priming.

The idea of pump priming for full employment has lost its glamour, and its persuasiveness. And, above all, the voters of Britain have showed a remarkable preference for a stable economy. They seem to have said that inflation is worse than having 3.5 million unemployed.

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