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Labor Movement Won't Lie Down, Die Need for Unions Still With Us


"The information economy in which all that entrepreneurship is happening plays to the importance of the individual, whereas in the industrial society, the focus was the group, the assembly line -- which contributed to the growth of unions. When people work together now, in small teams, for example, the idea is to cooperate as individuals, not to blend into a group where everyone is the same. . . . The union movement is dead. . . . Because unions don't understand the need to re-invent themselves to fit the information society, their decline and eventual demise seem certain." This is how John Naisbitt, of "Megatrends" fame, saw the future of organized labor about a decade ago. His views would find myriad supporters today. And yet, not everyone agrees that unions are no longer relevant.

The World Bank, for example, hardly known as an advocate for organized labor, recently declared that "free trade unions are a cornerstone of any effective system of industrial relations." And the British journal the Economist, a most prestigious voice of international capitalism, noted that "although the world has changed so much since 1940, when FDR famously said that free and independent unions were a characteristic of a free and democratic modern nation, his fundamental point remains valid."

Such expressions should give heart to those partisans who are struggling to restore some of the power and influence that organized labor has lost over the past several decades. And they should remind the rest of us that society as a whole has a stake in seeing to it that workers are independently and effectively represented. Sadly, we do not live in the best of all possible economic worlds. For significant segments of our society, the future is not a path strewn with roses. A strong, focused labor movement could make a difference in the lives of many Americans.

Take the problem of the failure of the real wage to rise significantly over the past two decades, this when we are finally reaping the benefits of the technological revolution of the past half-century. But workers' wages are not rising in line with increases in productivity. This is partly due to loose labor market conditions and to foreign competition. But it is also because unions' bargaining positions are weaker. Corporations and their stockholders are thus able to appropriate a disproportionate share of the gains generated by technological improvement. Business and the stock market exult now, but in the long run all will suffer as we erode the income that props up consumption -- the mainstay of the economy. Unions for decades have been hammering away at the theme that higher profits follow higher wages. That doctrine is still valid.

Look at the ever-present question of health and safety in the workplace. This issue helped spur the rise of the trade union movement more than a century ago. The battle has always been an uphill one. Only in 1970 did the United States -- in a Republican administration -- create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish a minimum set of health and safety standards for all workers. But given the current mood of congressional Republicans, it is clear that federal efforts in this field will be significantly diminished. Workers will have to look increasingly to the labor movement for protection. And lest someone claim that there is little to worry about, we have only to recall the 1991 fire in a North Carolina chicken processing plant, a blaze that consumed 25 lives in a factory that hadn't been inspected for years.

And finally we come to the central point: the availability of jobs. There is no doubt that a problem as old as the Industrial Revolution has become exacerbated in our era -- the issue of technological displacement. A look around the office or the factory will provide evidence that machines are threatening to make many workers obsolete. If one wants detailed documentation, a recent book by the social activist Jeremy Rifkin will be of use.

Mr. Rifkin calls his study "The End of Work." If he is right, we are in very serious trouble. For we are clearly not ready to find a substitute for the job as the principal mechanism by which individuals are integrated into society. We have to keep people working. And that means some sort of social contract in which existing work is redistributed and new jobs are created. Such a viable social contract is inconceivable without a strong labor movement as a key signatory.

Organized labor in the United States is currently at a crossroads. At its highest level, two factions are vying for control of the AFL-CIO. Whichever side wins, let us hope that there will emerge an aggressive, revitalized movement, responsive both to the needs of its members and to the interests of the nation as a whole. For whatever anyone thinks, the American labor movement has by no means outlived its usefulness.

Irvin Weintraub is an associate professor of economics at Towson State University.

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