Recovering from Labor Pains: Unions Rebound on Strikes, Lobbying

Article excerpt

The U.S. labor movement has reasserted itself in the past year on the picket line and at the ballot box, despite decades of declining membership and influence in the workplace.

As Labor Day passes, friends and foes alike are taking the temperature and checking the pulse of "Big Labor," which has been on its deathbed for years if any of the traditional vital signs are to be believed.

The percentage of Americans participating in labor unions has dropped steadily from the 1970s, when more than a quarter of the workforce was unionized, to about 14 percent today.

But several high-profile legislative victories along with job actions such as the United Autoworkers strike against General Motors Corp. appear to have pumped new life into the labor movement, despite record low membership and strike activity.

The number of major strikes in the United States hit an all-time low of of 29 in 1997, from a peak of 424 actions in 1974, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The U.S. labor movement appears to be once again on the warpath, not just in unionized workplaces, but on Capitol Hill and in state ballot boxes.

"Organizationally, they have stopped bleeding," said Myron Roomkin, dean of the Kogod College of Business Administration at American University.

"They have been in very bad shape in terms of membership, which is the way they have historically judged success. But they have given the movement a new focus and have posted some successes, which can be measured by how much their opponents are screaming about it."

In June, unions came from behind to defeat California's Proposition 226, a ballot initiative favored by business groups that would have required worker consent before a union could use dues for political action.

Had labor lost that fight, its opponents on the business side would have gained momentum for similar initiatives in other states, and unions' primary source of funding would have been in jeopardy.

On the national level, labor groups successfully capitalized on worker anxiety about globalization to defeat President Clinton's push last fall for "fast track" authority to negotiate international trade agreements.

These victories mark a sharp contrast from the labor movement of the past, which measured its power in terms of work stoppages and hard-fought wage concessions. These days, the movement's greatest successes are coming from the trenches of the political arena, where lawmakers are the ones getting strong-armed.

"It's really ironic. No one can argue with the fact that union membership is on the decline. But their influence on Capitol Hill is still strong and may be increasing," said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Money talks on Capitol Hill, and despite their declining membership they still have this big pool of money to used for their agenda," he added. …