Reeling US labor movement grapples with adversity

Many of the nation's leaders honored the trade union movement in speeches and statements Monday. But they know, and labor knows, that the recession's lingering effects and changing economic conditions, coupled with stiffer management resistance, have dealt a severe blow to the economic clout and political influence of organized labor.

The damage is not fatal. There were organized Labor Day festivities - marches , picnics, festivals, religious services, and other events - in 150 cities. Politicians still want to court American workers.

But, as Richard B. Freeman, a labor expert at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), says, ''They (trade unions) face a more hostile environment than they have faced in many years.''

American labor unions and the workers they represent are struggling, not always successfully, to cope with the changing and often hostile environment.

''Before, we tried to get everything we could'' from the company, says Ed Martin, who has worked for 28 years at National Steel Corporation's Weirton, W.Va., mill.''But we realize in troubled times you have to consider what is going on in the industry.''

Workers at Weirton are expected to vote Sept. 23 to purchase the plant from National, which had threatened to sharply curtail the mill's high-cost operations. To make the facility competitive, employees will take a 14.1 percent cut in their average gross twice-monthly pay of $1,137 and also give up one week's paid vacation and six holidays.

It is not only steelworkers who face difficult choices. ''There is no question that (overall) union power has been diluted, . . . although this varies by industry,'' says Herbert R. Northrup, chairman of the Wharton School's Labor Relations Council.

The numbers tell the story. For example:

* Wage settlements are rising slowly. In the first six months of the year, wage adjustments over the life of new collective-bargaining contracts rose just 2.7 percent, the lowest increase for any such period in 15 years. The average wage rose so little because about one-quarter of the workers covered by the settlements actually took pay cuts.

* Union membership is dipping. Membership in the AFL-CIO as a percentage of the civilian work force has fallen from a 15.0 figure in 1973 to 12.2. Many industrial unions saw their membership drop sharply during the recession, although some unions in the economy's service sector continued to post membership gains.

* Unions are faring poorly in elections. In 1981 unions won only 43.1 percent of the elections in which workers chose or voted down unions as bargaining agents. And unions were ousted in 75 percent of the elections in which workers decided whether to decertify their current bargaining agents.

* Strike activity slowed. Until recently, time lost in strikes had slowed to 0.04 percent of total hours worked, far below the .1 percent level of the 1970s.

Despite bad times, innovative solutions are often tough to sell to the rank and file.

For instance, voting by union members at General Motors Corporation's Packard Electric Division in Warren, Ohio, recently ran 5 to 2 against a plan that would have protected the jobs of 2,175 hourly workers. The jobs are threatened because they pay $19.60 an hour in wages and benefits, compared with the $1 an hour Packard now pays for similar work at three Mexican plants. Packard says it plans to eliminate uncompetitive jobs in Warren by 1986.

Under a scheme devised jointly by union and management, the jobs and pay of current workers would have been protected, while new employees would receive only $6 an hour in total compensation.

''Members viewed this (two-tier wage plan) as another concession to the corporation, which had produced a profit of $2 billion in the first two quarters'' of 1983, explains Robert L. Sutton, shop chairman for Local 717 of the International Union of Electrical Workers. Mr. Sutton had campaigned vigorously for the plan.

Of course, with an economic recovery under way, many union members will return to work, increasing the dues flowing into union coffers. The added income , in turn, will let unions step up organizing and political activities curtailed for lack of funds. And with employers enjoying fatter profits, workers will be less likely to make concessions and more likely to push for higher wages and strike to get them.

''There is a real confrontational mentality on the part of employers, a real desire to make war on their employees,'' says AFL-CIO economist John Zalusky. ''I think there will be stiffening resistance from unions.''

''In the last two months there has been more strike activity of every variety conducted by unions than in the prior 15 months,'' notes Stephen J. Cabot, a well-known labor-management lawyer and senior partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Pechner, Dorfman, Wolffe, Rounick & Cabot.

Membership growth and strike activity both pick up with an upturn in the business cycle, says David Lewin, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. Assuming the recovery continues, ''you could take the position that labor will do better in the next 18 months.''

But fundamental changes in the economy - increased automation, stiffer competition from imports, tougher management resistance to unions, and the growing importance of the service sector - pose significant challenges the recovery will not eliminate.

''Unions have not been through their worst times yet. They will experience continuing declines in their power as they have defined it,'' says Audrey Freedman, a labor expert at the Conference Board, a business research group. Among other factors, she notes that the power to strike effectively is diminished when unionized firms must battle for survival with nonunion firms in the United States and overseas.

''Unions in competitive fields are going to have to learn to become part of the competitive environment,'' says Ben Fischer, director of the Center for Labor Studies at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Some unions are working with management to find ways to improve operations without trimming employment. But in coping with changed circumstances, unions are placing major emphasis on altering the political climate and thus the rules under which they and the rest of the economy operate. Last month AFL-CIO leaders voted to speed up their endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate, a move generally expected to favor Walter Mondale.

Whether the worst is over for unions, ''depends entirely on the government's attitude,'' said Lloyd McBride, president of the United Steelworkers of America, in a telephone interview.

A change of administration would bring, ''good appointees, people who are fair, an NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) that is decent, federal judges who are fair,'' says William H. Wynn, president of the 1.3-million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

''Labor's political machine is moving full speed ahead,'' comments Charles Bailey, vice-president of the National Right to Work Committee, a group that opposes involuntary membership in unions.

Even if unions fail to help elect a president more to their liking, analysts say it would be a mistake to underestimate their economic and political influence.

''For quite some time, we became complacent. We realize that, and everyone in the labor movement is making significant efforts to reverse that trend,'' said Richard L. Trumka, United Mine Workers president, in an interview.

''They are still a powerful force, let's not kid ourselves,'' says Professor Northrup of the Wharton School.

And demographic factors may help swell union rolls in the longer term. The so-called baby-boom generation is so large that its members ''will not get the promotions and salaries they might have expected,'' says Mr. Freeman, the NBER economist. ''They will be prone to unionization. Management people are worried about this.''

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