Unions still battle for foothold

on the Friday before Labor Day, John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, rang the bell opening trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

It was unprecedented for the nation's top labor leader to perform that honor at this bastion of capitalism.

But the floor clerks are unionized. And Mr. Sweeney was invited by Richard Grasso, the Big Board's chairman.

Make no mistake, though, unions are still not welcome at most American companies.

Each year about this time, the AFL-CIO updates a document entitled "The Union Difference." It shows that America's 16.2 million union members do have some economic advantages.

Union workers earn 32 percent more than nonunion workers, the latest report notes. Their median weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary work were $659 in 1998, compared with $499 for their nonunion counterparts. The differential was even greater for women, African-American, and Latino union members.

Unionized employees are also more likely to have company pensions and medical and disability benefits.

Union workers also have greater job stability. Nearly 50 percent have been with their current employers for at least 10 years. Only 32 percent of nonunion workers have similar job longevity.

Academics broadly confirm such numbers. David Card, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, calculates that when all factors are taken into account, the average union worker makes 15 percent more than a nonunion employee in a similar job. But lower-paid union workers get 25 percent more, and higher-paid ones 5 percent more.

In unionized companies, there is usually a wage compression between low-paid janitors, laborers, and the highly skilled, better-paid workers.

Many American workers are aware of the union advantages. A Peter D. Hart poll finds that 43 percent of them would definitely or probably vote for a union if given an opportunity. That's up by nearly half over the past 15 years.

But few get the chance.

Though unions added a net 100,000 members last year, union membership as a proportion of total payrolls has shrunk from about 35 percent in the 1950s to 13.9 percent in 1998. How come?

"The companies don't want unions," says Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. "The companies make the costs high for workers wanting a union. There are a zillion things companies can do to prevent unionization."

Employees pushing for a union may face years of battle at work.

"Companies can make life miserable for union activists," says Mr. Freeman. And if the union loses an election, the activist often has no career left in the firm.

Under the law, management can't fire an activist, notes Freeman. "But you don't have to promote him ever again."

When a company faces a union drive, it often hires union-busting professionals for guidance. The unions employ their own professional organizers.

Management is usually tough. It often will tell supervisors they will be fired if the union wins. And the executives may not want to know what means are used in the persuasion process.

Penalties for infringement of laws by companies trying to block unions are "minuscule," says Freeman.

Executives sometimes warn workers that even if they get a union, management doesn't have to sign a contract. And they often don't.

If there is a strike, companies are more often nowadays hiring replacement workers. The United States is about the only nation that permits this practice.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley, seeking crucial union support for nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, recently promised to push for making the hiring of replacement workers illegal.

Labor still has clout in Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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