Hit by Slump, Labor Gives Bush Raspberry

ORGANIZED labor will campaign for the Clinton-Gore ticket in the presidential election.

That is no surprise. But according to Markley Roberts, an AFL-CIO economist, trade unions will be more unified this year in their support of Democratic candidates than they were in the elections of the 1980s. "The unions have no basis for feeling positive about the Bush administration," he said in a telephone interview.

The General Board of the union federation was scheduled to meet yesterday. Mr. Roberts expected the 95 presidents of the member unions at that gathering to vote unanimously to support Bill Clinton - including the Teamsters and some others who have in the past backed a Republican candidate.

As Roberts recalls, about 60 percent of union members voted for Walter Mondale in the 1984 election when Ronald Reagan, a popular Republican president, was running for reelection. He expects a larger proportion of the 16.57 million union members in the United States to vote Democratic in November.

But does organized labor have much political clout anymore?

Union members, after all, now account for only 16.1 percent of those employed full time. That proportion used to be about 35 percent in the 1950s. Since then trade unions have been hit hard by a decline in manufacturing employment as manufacturers increased labor productivity or assigned production to plants abroad. They have also been clobbered by the financial restructuring of some companies, by tough anti-union managements, by the growth of service industries, and other business trends.

Yes, Roberts replies, "Labor does make a difference." The trade unions still have a huge political action force, with thousands of volunteers helping with voter drives and other activities. "We are the most organized and unified of any lobbying and political group," he says. "A lot of our members are convinced their activities can make a difference in the election. This is one of the strengths of American democracy."

It hasn't been an easy year for labor. Unemployment in July was 7.7 percent. August figures are to be released today. Economists do not expect any major change - perhaps a 0.1 percentage point decline. About 10 million are jobless, according to the official number. If workers discouraged from seeking work and part-time workers who would rather work full-time are added in, the number grows to 17 million, Roberts notes. Millions more fear for their jobs as sizable layoffs continue in an uncertain economic recovery.

Moreover, the Commerce Department said Wednesday that the growth in Americans' income lagged behind rising prices in 1991 for the first time in nine years. Per capita income grew just 2.4 percent to $19,092 last year, compared to 4.4 percent inflation registered by the department's index for personal spending. So, adjusted for inflation, incomes declined 1.9 percent last year, the worst on record going back through 1970. Inflation adjusted per capita incomes were unchanged in 1990, rose 1.4 percent in 19 89, and increased 1.9 percent in 1988.

Looking at wages alone, Roberts says the buying power of the average worker has slipped since 1980, especially for those with only a high school education or less. Employees with higher education enjoyed good real income increases in that decade. But the wage gains of those with higher education and the gains of women have been eroding in the 1990s.

Roberts sees irony in all this bad news as Labor Day approaches, a day when labor is supposed to rest and enjoy some praise. He charges the Bush administration with anti-union activity. And the union-busting activity of employers is "still a growth industry," he says. Labor unions are engaged in a "constant battle" to maintain their membership through organization drives. Their best successes are in service fields.

Roberts expects the AFL-CIO to come out soon against the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada. He holds that the deal will encourage many US industrial concerns to move jobs to Mexico, taking advantage of low wages and less restrictive labor and environmental standards. The treaty may specify high standards, but there are no guarantees they will be enforced, he says.

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