Unions seek new members, toughen contract demands as US economy rebounds

Unions are stepping up campaigns to organize workers and negotiate more favorable contracts as the United States economy improves. Their objective is to reverse the flagging fortunes of the labor movement.

Union ranks have thinned during the recession. Losses are a reported 10 percent or more during the past three years, despite small increases in government communications and service unions.

The AFL-CIO says its membership has dropped by 700,000 since 1981. Union officials blame the decline on ''massive layoffs.'' They agree that union workers are now a smaller part of the work force than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

Some major unions are reeling. The United Automobile Workers has declined from more than 1.4 million members in 1979 to just under 1 million; the United Steelworkers from 975,000 to 650,000; and the International Association of Machinists from 675,000 to fewer than 600,000.

Many labor leaders concede privately that unions face a serious challenge - perhaps the most serious in four decades. However, they remain optimistic, echoing AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland's recent pledge that labor will come back strongly in the next few years.

Unions already are bargaining harder. Concession bargaining has slowed but not stopped. Moderate settlements are still the norm, but in many situations unions are now getting something back for their lower economic terms.

Members of the militant International Association of Machinists (IAM) in three Lockheed Corporation plants this week overwhelmingly ratified a three-year contract covering 25,000 skilled workers. It provides 3 percent bonuses the first two years and a 3 percent wage increase the third year, the union says. Workers now average $27,000 a year.

In return for accepting smaller wage increases, the IAM won a contract that will require new workers to join the union. This is the first such contract in the aerospace industry.

Another 20,000 workers represented by IAM at Boeing plants have accepted 3 percent-a-year increases for those now employed while agreeing to lower wages for newly hired unskilled workers. The IAM is on strike against another major aerospace company, McDonnell Douglas Corporation, after it refused to go along with similar terms.

The steelworkers and a dozen smaller unions remain on strike against Phelps Dodge Company in a dispute over contract terms already accepted by other major copper employers. A Phelps Dodge official says those that have signed can cover ''losses in copper by profits in oil, gold, silver, whatever, while we're almost entirely dependent on copper.'' Phelps Dodge has continued operations.

And lumber workers are striking Louisiana-Pacific Corporation sawmills in the West over a similar issue. The company insists that starting wages in the lumber industry in the Pacific Northwest should be cut 8 to 10 percent to match rates in other parts of the country. Other major producers sign union contracts without rollbacks. A Louisiana-Pacific walkout that began June 24 effected 18 mills; 15 have since resumed operations.

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