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Better (If Not Completely 'Happy') Days Here for Labor


Back when one of three American workers belonged to a union and labor had strong Democratic allies in the White House, the party's theme song was "Happy Days Are Here Again." Now that a dozen years of anti-union Republican rule are over, one question with important ramifications for the economy and working families is: Are happy days here again for the labor movement? Recent developments suggest that if "happy" isn't the most apt term, at least better days are here.

For example:

* In the first major organizing election of 1993, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) became the first union to win representation at Federal Express, one of the nation's fastest-growing companies.

* President Clinton reversed two Bush administration executive orders that barred union-only labor agreements on government contracts and required employees to be told of their right to withhold dues money for non-collective bargaining uses.

* In a potentially landmark decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) backed an International Brotherhood of Teamsters complaint charging that a labor-management committee dominated and controlled by management violated federal labor law.

* One of labor's priorities, the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed Congress and was signed into law.

* And perhaps most symbolically significant, President Clinton may soon reverse President Reagan's ban on hiring air traffic controllers who participated in the 1981 PATCO strike. In many ways, the PATCO situation is like bookends around labor's worst years.

This is the best string of good news America's trade unions have had in a long time. But no one should be lulled into a false sense of complacency. Labor has a long and pothole-filled road back to regain the power it had 25 years ago.

Global competition, the continued decline in manufacturing, stagnation in construction and demographic changes all create a still-harsh climate for organizing and bargaining. And while the Clinton administration will be much more friendly to labor than the GOP, it may be at odds with unions on trade, labor-management cooperation, taxation of health benefits and other issues.

This places a premium on adaptability, flexibility and innovation. Unions with these qualities that take a proactive approach to organizing, bargaining, public relations and every other aspect of their operations will be successful. Those that continue operating as in the past will face decline.

As the fastest-growing private-sector union, the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) is a prime example of the former. Faced in the 1980s with increasing non-union competition in the retail food industry and corporate consolidation in meatpacking, the UFCW blended traditional unionism with ingenious organizing and bargaining strategies to address the needs of today's diverse work force. In the past two years, for example, the UFCW stopped the decline of unionism in meatpacking and now represents 80 percent of the industry's workers.

Perhaps most interesting, the UFCW has initiated industry-wide Worker Advocacy Projects designed to set and maintain basic labor standards throughout an entire industry, both union and non-union. UFCW President William H. Wynn says the projects are needed, "In order to protect the superior standards of union employment from unfair competition."

This effort recently netted the largest private-sector pay settlement in history. Nordstrom department stores will have to pay approximately $24 million in back wages for previously uncompensated work. And Food Lion, a foreign-controlled grocery chain, could face a similar fate as the U.S. Labor Department has found massive violations of overtime and child labor laws.

Another area of union innovation is labor-management cooperation. While this has been a challenging issue for labor -- it is sometimes a euphemism for management control and can undermine collective bargaining -- some unions have made it work for them by carefully defining the parameters and ensuring that the union is an equal partner.

The most celebrated example is the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union's (ACTWU) relationship with Xerox. When the company was losing market share in the early 1980s, rather than face layoffs, the union offered to work with management to improve productivity and efficiency. ACTWU traded flexibility in work rules for a real voice in how things are run. The result is that union workers saved Xerox millions of dollars, Xerox has regained market share and manufacturing jobs increased from 2,600 a decade ago to 4,100 today.

While the innovative approaches used by unions such as the UFCW and ACTWU are essential to labor's success, ultimately a receptive audience is required. Here, labor has encouraging news.

A recent survey by the Wilson Center for Public Research found that union members are more supportive of their unions than rank-and-file members were two decades ago.

It also discovered that among non-union workers, the desire for representation by a union is increasing, while anti-union sentiment declined considerably. Specifically, polls conducted between 1981 and 1983 showed that 62 percent of non-union workers were opposed to unions or satisfied with the status quo, while 38 percent were either supportive or open-minded about joining a union. Polls taken between 1990 and 1992 found only 49 percent in the opposed/status quo category and 51 percent supportive/open-minded, a 13 percent pro-labor shift. It also revealed that women, Hispanics and young workers are most receptive to unions.

The most significant factor causing this change is the squeeze on the middle class and resulting creation of what the Wilson Center calls the "new working class." As the Economic Policy Institute reported, the real earnings of most working people have dropped by nearly 1 percent each year. A 1992 Joint Economic Committee report found that 80 percent of two-parent families experienced a decline in the income growth rate in the 1980s. And 1992 census data revealed that more than 40 percent of full-time workers aged 18-24 earned wages at or below the poverty level.

Many of these people are realizing that labor unions offer their best, and often only opportunity to improve their standard of living and win a voice in workplace decisions. So in an ironic sense, labor in the '70s and '80s was a victim of its success in creating a thriving middle class which saw labor as less relevant -- and now it is poised to benefit in the '90s from its decline, which caused the middle class to shrink.

How aggressively and creatively America's trade unions capitalize on this opportunity will largely determine whether happy days will ever be here again for the labor movement.

Jeffrey Sandman is senior vice-president at general counsel of The Kamber Group, a consulting and public relations firm which represents more than a dozen labor unions including the Air Line Pilots Association and United Food and Commercial Workers.

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