Hard times bolster labor's resolve

Adversity in 1982 has tightened the ranks of organized labor and, from all indications, tied trade unionists more closely to the Democrats.

More union members are unemployed now than at any time since the 1930s. Jobs in goods-producing industries, including manufacturing, construction, and mining - industries that have been the core of union strength - have declined until more workers are employed in less-unionized consumer, financial, and service industries.

Inflation has wiped out virtually all the gains achieved by unions through higher earnings in the 1970s. Workers and their families are finding it harder to make ends meet.

Unions themselves have also been affected. Memberships of blue-collar unions have dropped; the United Auto Workers, which boasted 1.5 million members for years, concedes it has only about 1.2 million now. Since unemployed members do not pay dues, union budgets have had to be trimmed. There is less organizing going on now and many programs have had to be cut. Some staff personnel have been laid off.

Still, according to former Labor Secretary John T. Dunlop, the labor movement as a whole is basically sound in its 100th year. According to Dr. Dunlop, union membership remains high and relatively stable. The future of organized labor is not in doubt, he says, but labor's future role and power are in question.

Many of the country's top union leaders used Labor Day messages to say something about labor's role to union members and the public on the 88th official observance of the holiday dedicated to American workers.

A common theme in 1982 messages was, as Milan Stone of the United Rubber Workers put it, ''we are experiencing a renewed sense of unity and solidarity.''

This unity is largely a reaction to high unemployment (the 9.8 percent rate in August, unchanged from July, meant more than 10.8 million were jobless) and a reaction against President Reagan's economic policies ''that do not work,'' as Mr. Stone and other union spokesmen said at rallies, in radio and television appearances, and in statements published Sept. 6.

Leaders made much of the rise in unemployment from 7.7 million on Labor Day 1981 to today's 10.8 million - closer to 12 million by labor's count.

AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland dramatized the unemployment level by saying on Labor Day that today's jobless would form ''a grim line stretching 4,000 miles long, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again to the Mississippi.''

Mr. Kirkland called high unemployment ''a national scandal,'' saying ''There is no light at the end of the tunnel of recession, unemployment, and national decline into which (Reaganomics) has led us.''

Trade unionists are making a common cause of demands for greater job security , opposition to Reagan administration moves to relax job safety and health regulations. Fears of proposed child labor law and minimum wage changes and warnings about social security problems are also concerns.

A major question now in AFL-CIO is whether unions will show sufficient political unity in November to elect a sympathetic Congress and, by reasserting labor's political power, force the administration to pay more attention to unions.

The AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education (COPE) has found that between 20 and 25 percent of AFL-CIO's 15 million members in 99 unions are registered Republicans. In 1980, almost double this percentage voted for GOP candidates. Because of unemployment and other problems now being encountered by union members, COPE's director, John Perkins, said that more than 60 percent of union households plan to vote for Democrats in November.

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