Opportunities for labor

WHEN the AFL-CIO delegates first booked their hotel rooms in Miami Beach sometime back, they probably had no idea their biennial convention would have such a dramatic backdrop of current events. Neither the financial community nor worker/consumers have quite regained their bearings after Wall Street's turbulence. The transition to a new administration in Washington is already beginning.

The only certainty is change. It wouldn't be a clich'e if it weren't true.

Meanwhile, organized labor is still struggling to find a new voice, a way to respond to the demands of a restructuring American and global economy.

The welcoming back into the AFL-CIO fold of the Teamsters will increase the federation's power and improve its organizing ability and political influence. But neither AFL-CIO nor the Teamsters has the membership they once had; overall, union membership has fallen from a 1950s high of nearly 1 in 3 workers to only 1 in 6 today.

The blows to organized labor over the years have been many: the loss of factory jobs to service industry; the entry of women (deemed ``hard to organize'') into the work force; so-called ``two-tier'' or ``double breasted'' work forces, split between union and nonunion workers; the shift to no-frills, no-benefits part-time or temporary jobs, to name a few.

And strikebreaking - or hiring ``replacement workers,'' as management prefers to put it - has become more acceptable, as has been seen from the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981 to the more recent football strike.

Indeed, strikes are being seen as a weapon of management rather than of labor; companies are willing to let workers go on strike, and break both strike and union at once. And all this goes on in a climate of thought in which many workers, and the public at large, often think of unions as less than relevant.

If they are to continue as a significant presence, unions must continue to seek ways to make workers feel their interests can be better represented by a union than by, say, government regulators, or on their own.

One possibility suggests itself this week in between the lines of the Physician Task Force Report on Hunger.

``Hunger Reaches Blue-Collar America: An Unbalanced Recovery in a Service Economy'' is the title of the report and also a summary of one of the economic trends of our times.

The working poor have been identified for some time now as one of the growth sectors of the poverty population. The Joint Economic Committee of Congress has reported that of the 13 million jobs created in this decade, 8.2 million pay less than $7,000 a year.

Now the task force reports that blue-collar workers in the Texas oil fields, in Pittsburgh steel mills, and other traditional strongholds of American industrial muscle are going hungry. For these people ``belt tightening'' is not just metaphor but literal fact.

American trade unionism has had its finest hours in championing the underdog. It still has its work cut out for it.

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