50 years after labor act, unions struggle to define their role

Fifty years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the National Labor Relations Act, thus guaranteeing as never before, a worker's right to join a union and to strike. For unions, the July 5, 1935, signing was a landmark. But the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a committee set up to administer the law, has been widely viewed as a failure. And its perceived failure is one of the forces that is pushing unions to represent workers in new ways.

``The NLRB as a means to organize employees is a joke,'' says Charles McDonald, assistant organizing director of the AFL-CIO.

``We're avoiding it whenever possible,'' agrees Al Zack, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Through picketing and other tactics, the union has been successful in getting some employers (such as supermarkets), to recognize the union without going through the NLRB's election process. Of the 65,000 workers the union organized last year, only 12 percent went through an NLRB election.

Unions have important reasons for complaining about the law's failure. Their efforts to organize workers have met with increasing resistance.

This year, for example, the AFL-CIO estimates it may organize 72,000 workers through NLRB elections. This, Mr. McDonald says, is a far cry from the 500,000 organized in the 1950s. Even after voting in a union, workers these days only get a contract about 60 percent of the time, down from 95 percent in the 1960s, he says.

A recent report by the House labor-management relations subcommittee, which concluded that labor law has failed, found that at least one out of 20 workers voting in favor of organizing a union is fired for supporting it.

Most union officials' complaints are not aimed at the law itself, but at the interpretation of that law by the NLRB under President Reagan. Chaired by Donald Dotson, a former management attorney, the board is widely viewed as having a pro-management bias.

But these complaints don't fully tell of labor's decline.

For one thing, the board's impact is limited. Fully 90 percent of the board's decisions are relatively routine, says Martin H. Schneid, assistant to the director of NLRB Region 13 in Chicago. And though the present board does lean 5 degrees toward management, he says, that is no more bias than the union bias on earlier boards.

For another, economic and social forces are pressuring organized labor on two fronts. Some labor experts call these two fronts the two faces of unionism.

Everybody knows one face. It is unions' attempt to win all they can for their members -- ``a fixation,'' as one AFL-CIO official puts it, ``on the four corners of the contract.'' This monopoly-like power is facing imposing competition from overseas and nonunion workers as well as more aggressive employers.

But there is another face to organized labor, rarely seen and little understood by the public. It is unions' ability to represent workers -- opening channels of communication between workers and employers to air grievances and resolve disputes. Faced with this challenge on the economic side, unions' ability to communicate to and for the employee is expected to become increasingly important.

``I see the labor movement, at least for now, trying to represent workers in every possible way,'' says John Zalusky, an AFL-CIO economist.

``I think the labor movement is going to respond to different needs -- different than the '30s, '40s, and '50s,'' adds Harvey L. Friedman, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts. Now, ``we're concerned with the whole human being.''

Unions, he says, will have to address the broader needs of the worker, such as workplace and housing conditions, as well as issues pertaining to retiring workers, and pay equity for women.

Even in this communication role, however, unions face great challenges. One argument is that the very labor laws that unions pushed for are making unionism less relevant.

Some critics contend that current labor laws will be enough to protect workers without the aid of unions. Management, meanwhile, is communicating more effectively with workers. This move is helping preempt unions' role as communicator.

``Corporate America is tremendously more responsive to preventative labor relations than it was 10 years ago,'' says Stephen J. Cabot, senior partner of Pechner, Dorfman, Wolffe, Rounick, and Cabot, one of the nation's largest labor-law firms.

Union officials decry the rise of labor-relations consultants like Mr. Cabot -- union-busters, they say -- whose sole aim often is to help the employer get rid of or avoid a union.

But Cabot holds that competition is forcing employers to improve employee relations rather than their distaste for unions.

Will labor unions become increasingly irrelevant? Some labor experts don't think so.

``I think there's a greater place than there was in the past because there are more problems that can be solved on a collective basis,'' says Schneid of the NLRB.

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