THE strike at Eastern Airlines has taken on something of an air of a fight to the finish for American unionism. That's because in the United States, union membership as a share of nonagricultural wage and salary employees has declined from 31 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 1985-86. This decline in ``density'' of membership has alarmed the unions.
Abroad, however, the union picture varies sharply. In Canada, West Germany, and France, there was little change in union membership density in the 1980s. In some Scandinavian countries, union density rose considerably.
Why this divergence?
A Harvard economics professor, Richard Freeman, says the best explanation is the level and effectiveness of management opposition to unionism.
In the 1970s and '80s, management in the US turned against unions and collective bargaining to a degree not seen anywhere else in the noncommunist world. Virtually all companies that faced National Labor Relations Board representation elections, by which their employees could choose to unionize, engaged in expensive, aggressive campaigns to persuade and pressure workers to reject unions, Dr. Freeman notes.
Unfair labor practices of diverse forms, such as firing union activists, skyrocketed to rates five or six times those in earlier decades. Large nonunion companies consciously copied union seniority and grievance procedures to deter employee interest in unions.
Management declared war on unions because of high union wages, Freeman says. With decentralized union bargaining, US corporate management had a profit incentive to defeat the unions. There was also the growth of a militant market-oriented ideology that justified nearly any anti-union action as preserving management flexibility. Management also made use of new sophisticated union-prevention technology.
Freeman speaks of the US as headed toward ``ghetto unionism,'' with unions limited to special segments of the work force.
Differences in the institutions and laws that govern labor relations also partly explain national differences in the evolution of unionism. In Canada and Ireland, for example, legal restrictions on opposition to unions have enabled organized labor to improve its position modestly. Trade union membership in 1970 in Canada amounted to 32 percent of the non-farm work force; by 1985-86 it had reached 36 percent, largely because of more unionization of public-sector jobs.
In Britain, union membership rose from 51 percent in 1970 to 58 percent in 1979 and then, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in office, it had fallen back to 51 percent by 1985-86. The principal cause of the 1980s drop in density appears to be Mrs. Thatcher's industrial relations law. It shifted the balance of power in the workplace to management and weakened the ability of unions to organize.
``She knows what she's doing,'' Freeman says.
In Japan, the proportion of unionized labor has dropped from 35 percent to 28 percent in the 1970-to-1985-86 period. Government and management have made successful efforts to reduce membership in the unions representing railway workers and teachers.
Moreover, if a Japanese company doesn't want its employees in a union, the union will generally respect that wish, Freeman says.
Italy experienced a rise and fall in union density - 39 percent in 1980, 51 percent in 1979, 45 percent in 1985-86, according to a Freeman paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The recent drop in density has to do with disorganization of the union movement that developed after 1983.
Unions fared best in countries with highly regulated labor markets where unions and management engage in national bargaining. In this situation, there is little incentive for individual companies to fight the unions. These nations are Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. In these countries and Belgium, the unions also disperse government-funded unemployment benefits. Typically, in Denmark union density rose from 66 in 1970 to 95 percent in 1985-86.
The management attitude on unions in Scandinavia is ``Welcome to our shop,'' says Freeman.
Looking at the decline of trade unions in the US and Japan, where they have been considered part of the established order, Freeman concludes that ``private-sector unionism is a more fragile institution than is widely recognized. The broader implication is that in a world of economic and social flux the structuring of labor relations ... is a process that must be undertaken time and again as environmental changes alter the balance of power between workers and management and their conflicting and coincident interests.''