The role of US unions is questioned as their rolls have dwindled

STAGNATION in the United States trade union movement has turned into a virtual rout. Union members made up 25.6 percent of those employed in the private, nonagricultural portion of the economy in 1973. By 1985, the proportion had dropped to 14.1 percent. That 1985 number is the latest available, but it is unlikely the downward trend has reversed since then.

Why this decline?

One reason is increased employer hostility and resistance toward unions and union organizing activity, according to Henry S. Farber, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a result, unions and workers are less willing to undertake organization efforts. And when they try, they are achieving less success.

The political and social climate in the nation has changed. Employers are calling into serious question the role of trade unions in American society and the economy for the first time since that role was defined in the 1930s, Dr. Farber states in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper.

``With the economic recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, more overt antiunion behavior became socially and politically acceptable,'' he figures.

Certainly nonunion employers are more often hiring labor-management consultants whose hallmark is defeating unions in representation elections.

These consultants can emphasize ``positive labor relations.'' That means giving employees a unionlike environment that includes higher wages, better fringe benefits, and some form of due process in the workplace that at least resembles the grievance procedures that unions usually demand in their contracts with employers.

Or they can conduct an active, legal antiunion campaign. This can include providing negative views of the meaning of unionization to workers, gerrymandering of the unit of representation, or delaying the election. Delay tends to significantly reduce the probability of union success.

Sometimes consultants and management may conduct an illegal election campaign by committing obvious unfair labor practices, such as threats, harassment, firing, and unduly pessimistic claims of what will result from unionization. The number of charges of unfair employer labor practices per election rose from 2.61 in 1970 to 7.45 in 1982.

Both legal and illegal employer campaigns significantly reduce union success. Elections won by unions slipped from 55.2 percent of the total in 1970 to 43 percent in 1983.

Why are managers tougher on union organizing attempts?

Farber contends that it is more likely that employers see an increase in the costs of unionization than merely the availability of new, more effective antiunion tactics.

There has been a major increase in the level of foreign competition over the past decade, particularly in the manufacturing sector that has formed the heart of the union movement in the US. In 1958, only 2.5 percent of manufacturing sales in the US were imports. This rose to 7.2 percent by 1977 and 11 percent by 1984.

``In the past, with no significant foreign competition, it may be that American firms could afford to accommodate higher costs associated with labor unions by sharing some of the gains of a relatively closed economy with their workers,'' Farber writes. ``However, the increased openness of the American economy may make it prohibitively expensive to bear these higher costs, because higher product prices will not be borne by consumers who have attractive foreign alternatives.''

The deregulation of some key heavily unionized industries, such as trucking and airlines, has also boosted the level of competition and management resistance to unions. Companies in these industries are no longer protected by government limits on competition.

Farber offers another explanation for the decline in the labor movement: Nonunion workers are less enthusiastic about unionization.

The MIT professor reaches these conclusions from his analysis of two surveys of workers, one done in 1977, another in 1984. These surveys showed that demand for union representation among nonunion workers declined from 39.5 percent in 1977 to 32.4 percent in 1984.

These surveys also showed a dramatic improvement between 1977 and 1984 in the satisfaction of nonunion workers with their jobs. And workers who are relatively pleased with pay, job security, and other job factors are less likely to demand union representation.

Because there was a decline in real earnings in this period, the general increase in worker satisfaction with pay suggests that the standards against which workers judge their wages fell during the economic and competitive dislocations of the 1970s, Farber guesses.

A majority of nonunion workers still believe unions improve the wages and conditions of workers. But the size of that majority fell substantially from 1977 to 1984. So, Farber suggests, it may take unpleasant personal experiences on the job to motivate workers to organize.

After analyzing 19 variables for sex, race, age, education, industry, and occupation over the past decade, Farber found that shifts in the demographic, industrial, and occupational composition of employment offers little explanation for the decrease in unionization.

How can unions recoup their losses? Given increased international competition in the US, Farber doubts that they can go back to the days when they won huge wage hikes for their workers in such industries as automobiles and steel.

Nonetheless, unions must convince workers that they can play an effective role in the workplace. Through grievance procedures or worker participation in decisionmaking, they must give workers some sense of control over their destinies. Some unions are experimenting with financial incentives for membership such as group life or automobile insurance.

Until workers feel less satisfaction with their jobs, convincing them of the benefits of unionization may be ``a nearly impossible task,'' concludes Farber. -30-{et

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