Weep not for Big Labor. Though it has again lost its top priority issue for the year -- this time an effort to stop management from hiring permanent replacement workers during a strike over economic disputes -- this does not mean the union movement is heading toward oblivion. What it does mean is that labor has to change tactics to deal with revolutionary changes in a highly competitive world workplace.
The Senate debate this month, which found organized labor unable to break a Republican filibuster threat despite the presence of a Democrat in the White House, was oddly anachronistic. There was Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, thundering that it was absurd to force workers to choose between their right to strike and their livelihood. There was Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, charging that the AFL-CIO was seeking unrivaled economic power to strike and bring employers to their knees.
The essence of the argument was strictly adversarial, echoing the traditional rivalry between labor and management that was once considered as American as apple pie. While both sides argued in absolutes, with labor advocates blaming their troubles on Reagan-era union-busting and management defenders asserting an employer's right to survive in business, beneath the rhetoric lay a far different reality.
What is this reality? That both labor and management have to cooperate more and bicker less to advance their mutual self-interest. They need to abandon the old "us-versus-them" mentality and work together to increase both compensation and profits. The AFL-CIO in its February report on "The New American Workplace" urged increased worker opportunities to "improve the quality and reduce the cost of goods and services." Savvy employers fight hierarchical top-down organization and encourage teams of workers to govern themselves and get involved in management decisions.
Such developments do not lend themselves to simplistic slogans out on the election stump. And make no mistake: Big Labor knew it would lose this fight just as it lost its wrong-headed battle last year against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Now that it has met defeat once again, with no prospect of better tidings next year, labor should opt for new thinking and new leadership. That is the formula for the revival of a healthy union movement, one responding to world market forces that are also driving more and more employers toward enlightened labor policies.