Labor's New World


Consider the American worker: the highest productivity per person and per hour among the major developed countries, and the lowest wage-unit cost. As a result, American exports have doubled since 1985.

Consider the American record of job creation: higher than nearly every one of the developed nation competitors, an increase of 5.5 million jobs over the past three years.

And the work ethic: Americans toil more hours than workers in every developed country except Japan; 6 percent of U.S. workers have two or more jobs.

These are descriptions, accurate ones, that may bring hope to the country on this Labor Day 1994.

In an admittedly globalized economy, the American worker and the 130-mil- lion-person U.S. work force should be prospering under these conditions as never before.

The reality is less comforting.

The United States has seen "a long-term decline in the rate of growth of productivity," which "makes it difficult for Americans to enjoy rising standards of living and [limits] the feasible wages and benefits that firms can pay," concludes the federal Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations.

Much of the recent U.S. competitiveness has been spurred by a weak dollar; when the dollar strengthens against foreign currencies, American products will become less competitive and the economy will suffer, warns the 10-member panel. Its fact-finding report this spring provides a comprehensive picture of the changing U.S. labor force. Fundamental changes in labor relations are needed.

Among its findings:

* U.S. employment growth has been significant in low-wage, low-productivity jobs, while good-paying manufacturing jobs -- and blue-collar wages -- have declined.

* The growth rate in pay for white-collar managers and professionals has accelerated. The country has become richer. But the gap between rich and poor is widening, the broadest stretch in nearly a half-century. Real incomehas stagnated or fallen for 80 percent of households over the past two decades.

* The continuing shift from labor-intensive to technology-dependent industry further widens this pay chasm, reducing lower-middle-class opportunities and raising barriers to higher education for their offspring. More foreign-born immigrants are in the labor pool than in many decades, the majority of them lower-skilled and creating more competition for lower-paying jobs.

* There is increased job insecurity across the board, fewer people working full time continuously for a single employer, and high persistent unemployment for the less-skilled.

The picture is much different than it was six decades earlier when our current views of American labor, the economy and laws that regulate labor-employer relations and the workplace were formed.

The U.S. workplace has more women, more minorities and more foreign-born workers than ever. The work force average age is older than in many years. It is more educated: Over half the labor pool has at least 12 years of schooling, twice the percentage in 1970.

The new work force is not only larger, but two-thirds of working-age adults are in the market, the highest proportion in decades.

Service jobs account for 75 percent of American employment; the percentage of manufacturing and farming jobs has shrunk to less than half their shares of the labor force in the 1950s.

Contingency workers -- part-timers, temporaries and contract workers who lack full benefits and job security -- make up a greater part of the labor force, accounting for as many as 30 million workers.

Hard to categorize and lump together, the contingents represent both the flexibility and the limits of current U.S. employment. More part-time employees say they want to work full time. The number of mainly low-wage temporaries has tripled over the last dozen years.

But a significant number of workers want only part-time jobs, to fit with their other lifestyle needs. Others want the higher pay of contract employment, without costly benefits they may get elsewhere, as from a working spouse.

The increase in self-employed, independent contract workers has been encouraged by employers trying to increase flexibility, reduce costs and avoid labor laws.

In any case, these workers often don't share traditional labor concerns, as defined by labor laws or trade unions. Any number of them are counted among working Americans without health insurance and without a pension plan. Most of them are nonunion workers, relying on government regulation and courts, instead of a collective bargaining contract, to protect their employment rights and safety.

Union membership continues to sink as a proportion of the work force. Labor unions now represent about 11 percent of private-sector U.S. workers, a new low since World War II. Success in organizing government employees brings the overall union percentage of the work force to about 16 percent.

Labor's flabby political muscle reflects this decline. The unions have sustained losses on major test issues during the Clinton administration, a tenure that was supposed to signal their resurgent power: the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement last year, the defeat of the striker replacement bill this year.

Organized labor has now cast its political lot with the president's national health care initiative, an effort that has also proven unsatisfactory.

Meanwhile, the number of union representation elections and number of workers involved have declined to half the level of the 1970s. One-third of workplaces that vote for union representation do not get a labor contract with the employer. Laws and attitudes that discourage union formation and membership growth, highlighted in the Reagan-Bush era, persist. It can take years to certify a new union at a workplace and years to fight

illegal firings for union activity. Illegal firings have increased fivefold over the 1960s.

Unions are reluctant to strike, given companies' willingness to replace strikers and the unstable economy: The annual number of strikes in the 1990s is about one-sixth the number in the 1970s, one-tenth that of 1950.

While union claims of unfair labor practices against employers have risen over the past decade, the number of illegal-firing lawsuits filed with government agencies and courts, usually without union involvement, has mushroomed 125-fold. This trend underlines the dwindling importance of collective bargaining in protecting most workers today.

Some of this movement away from unions may be due to their success in gaining government protections and benefits for workers who aren't dependent on union membership. These measures now have their own nonunion constituencies: 401(k) pension plans, pension insurance, family leave, Social Security.

Occupational safety remains a union priority, but the number of injuries is unchanged over the past decade.

The adversarial relationship between union labor and management, tempered by federal regulation, has long been the foundation of the American industrial system. Evidence accumulated by the Worker-Management Commission suggests that the system is in need of serious modification, if not a major overhaul.

While specific recommendations will be made by the panel later this year, the commission begins with the premise that greater employee participation/cooperation at work, less contentious contract bargaining and revamped labor-employer dispute resolution methods would greatly improve American economic performance.

It's uncertain whether labor or employers will accept these kinds of changes, or if they will cynically use them to win advantage in traditional confrontations. But the insistent message of the commission is that change is needed if the American economy is to grow and, in turn, promote a healthy society.

Michael Burns is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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