As employment climbs, so may workers' ranks wearing the union label

HELP-wanted signs are common in booming Boston and becoming more frequent in other parts of the nation. It is good news for the trade unions, soon to mark another Labor Day. Historically, when the labor markets become tight, trade unions make membership gains. Union organizers find their job easier. Management warnings about unions threatening jobs become less credible when employees can find a new job easily.

Averaged across the nation, civilian unemployment is 6 percent. That may seem high. But the percentage of the population employed has reached record heights. If people in the armed forces are included, the percentage of the entire population (not living in institutions) who are employed is 63 percent. If soldiers, sailors, and airmen are not included, the percentage is 61.6 percent.

The rest of the population includes children, retirees, those incapable of work (but not institutionalized), and the unemployed. In other words, the pool of available workers has shrunk.

``The big factor is the women's participation rate,'' notes an official from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Back in the 1960s, before the majority of women worked, 55 or 56 percent of the population was usually employed (excluding the armed forces). That figure moved up to a peak of 60.1 percent in December 1979. Then hard times struck again. The employment/population ratio bottomed at 57.1 percent in March 1983. As the recovery progressed, it started climbing again.

Already newspapers are publishing fat help-wanted sections. Individual skills, obviously, don't always match available jobs. And the number of youths entering the labor force each year is declining.

The latest numbers show manufacturers running their plants at 80.5 percent of capacity on average, the highest level for 18 months. At that rate, it is more likely that businesses will start thinking expansion - and thus adding new jobs.

Moreover, the economy is still moving ahead, although somewhat slowly, as the 2.3 percent growth rate reported last week for gross national product in the second quarter shows.

Will this tighter market reverse the declining fortunes of organized labor, which now represents only around 14 percent of the private, nonagriculture labor force, compared with 25.6 percent in 1973?

``We refuse to declare a trough, because we don't know,'' says Rex Hardesty, an AFL-CIO spokesman.

In 1985, the trade union federation's Committee on the Evolution of Work published a report recommending dozens of measures aimed at reviving the union movement. Many are being applied.

Some of the AFL-CIO's 89 affiliates, for example, are offering members more benefits than just collective bargaining. A credit card offering a relatively low 12.5 percent interest, the Union Privilege Card, has been accepted by ``towards a million'' union members, the union claims.

In some heavily unionized areas, union members can subscribe to a prepaid group legal services program which offers a free half-hour of a lawyer's time for consultation, plus more time at 75 percent of the regular rate. Some unions offer special cut-rate travel tours on vacations. Neither such new benefits nor low unemployment will turn the labor movement around quickly.

``It is not an overnight undertaking,'' Mr. Hardesty admits.

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