Union giants -- merging for what?

The publicity handouts that will now roll off mimeograph machines in union offices throughout the United States will likely speak of the "strengthened" political and bargaining clout of big labour, now that the United Auto Workers is on the verge of rejoining the AFL-CIO. There will be some truth to that claim, since labor is now at a generally low ebb of influence in American society, with a conservative, business-oriented administration securely niched in Washington.

In fact, however, the true political impact of the labor merger will probably not be felt for a year or so, until the midterm congressional elections of 1982, or even until the presidential election of 1984. And in some respects the importance of the merger may not be as much political as sociological, with the UAW expected to add a much-needed infusion of innovation and organizing know-how to a federation leadership that has become increasingly complacent in recent years while union membership as a percentage of the total US work force has continued to decline.

Outwardly, the reunification of the 1.2 million-member UAW and the 13.5 million-member AFL-CIO brings big labor to a roster of close to 15 million.But that paperm membership, as the leadership of both groups realizes only too well, hardly constitutes a unified, militant, 15 million-member movement.m Officials of both organizations have already worked closely together in recent years. But the overall numbers mask the fact that millions of union workers identify themselves more with President Reagan, and his political goals of reducing the federal budget and slashing taxes, than with the more liberal social programs called for by Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, and Douglas A. Fraser, president of the auto workers.

What then should one make of the merger, which brings the auto workers back into the fold of big labor for the first time since 1968?

* Most important, the merger, which will presumably be ratified when the federation's executive council meets this August, increases the power of the more liberal unions already within big labor. Industrial unions and government employes unions are already well to the left of the older building trades unions , but have often lacked their power in the federation's decision-making process.

The auto union will command something like six to seven percent of total delegate votes at future federation conventions.

* At the same time, the UAW is still considered one of the most innovative of US unions. Consider the Chrysler agreement, under which Mr. Fraser now sits on the board of the beleaguered automaker. Other US unions can be expected to emulate many of the UAW's contractual arrangements. In a perhaps more dubious relationship, many smaller unions may well turn to the auto union for aid in devising protectionist programs.

And there is drama yet to come in the new alliance. For example, will the merger help hasten the return of the powerful (and more conservative) Teamsters union? There is little doubt that some building trades unions would welcome this to help offset the role of the auto workers within the AFL-CIO. That issue however will probably not be answered until later this year, when it becomes clear whether Teamsters president Frank Fitzsimmons decides to seek reelection.

In the meantime, a definitive assessment of the UAW-federation merger will have to await political events during the months and years ahead. George Meany perhaps best raised the challenge and proper standard by which unions should conduct their affairs when he said that "labor has become what you might call a People's Lobby. . . . We lobby for the things that affect the little people of America, because that's what we represent." If the merger enhances that "People's Lobby" and becomes a force for cooperation and renewed industrial expansion within the US -- and not just another political grouping seeking the special interests of labor by itself --interests of all Am ericans.

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