The Besieged U.S. Labor Movement / Labor Taking It on the Chin like It Hasn't since 1920s

By Serrin, William | THE JOURNAL RECORD, July 5, 1986 | Go to article overview

The Besieged U.S. Labor Movement / Labor Taking It on the Chin like It Hasn't since 1920s


Serrin, William, THE JOURNAL RECORD


NEW YORK - Six thousand flight attendants strike Trans World Airlines. The strike is broken by hiring new workers, and 4,400 attendants lose their jobs with little complaint from other unionists.

The American Telephone and Telegraph Co. is struck by 150,000 communications workers, but service continues with little disruption, with supervisors filling in and new workers hired to replace strikers.

Fifteen hundred meatpackers strike Geo. A. Hormel & Co. in Austin, Minn. The parent union, infuriated by tactics, places the local in trusteeship, asking workers to renounce the strike.

How long has it been since things looked so dismal for unions?

Plants continue to close. Bargaining on management demands for concessions continues. The willingness of companies to hire employees to take strikers' jobs weakens strikes, as at TWA and AT&T, and computer technologies mean work can often be performed automatically, also weakening strikes, as at AT&T.

In 1981 more than 11,000 air traffic controllers were dismissed for their strike, which was illegal, and numerous strikes since have been lost or ended with employees returning to work largely on employers' terms.

""The labor movement is taking it on the chin like it hasn't since the early 1920s,'' Ronald Schatz, associate professor of history at Wesleyan University, said this week.

""Anti-unionism in the country is phenomenal,'' said Robert Schrank, a private work consultant formerly with the Ford Foundation.

Often little solidarity exists, as demonstrated by the fighting between the Hormel meatpackers and their parent union.

Examples exist of imaginative, vigilant trade unionism: strikes; aggressive activities in place of strikes, like those in the plant where unions conduct legal actions and perhaps work slowdowns to press demands but insure that workers receive income; alliances of unionists to fight plant closings and lobby for a national ""superfund'' to provide income for displaced workers who wish to attend college.

Yet, at many unions life goes on as though memberships were not plummeting and as though labor's image was not poor.

Audrey Freedman, labor economist with the Conference Board, a business research organization of New York, cites these causes of difficulties for unions: deregulation; a national Administration often not sympathetic to union views; company views that costs of wages, benefits, and often inefficient work rules must be reduced.

Schatz saw different reasons for decline in labor strength.

He said the relationship often worked out by unions, companies and the government in the decades after World War II - some called this a ""social compact'' - was breaking down.

Under this relationship, expanding productivity and domination by U.S. companies would insure rising wages and benefits, he explained.

Unions would moderate militant activity to gain increasing wages and benefits, he said. Many union leaders tightly allied themselves with the Democratic Party, putting ""all the eggs in the political basket,'' he went on, often to the detriment of organizing and other vigorous activities.

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