On Labor Day 1995, American unions stand at a crossroads between militancy and irrelevancy. Candidates for the succession to the AFL-CIO presidency, Tom Donahue and John Sweeney, predict they will end the stagnancy of the Lane Kirkland era. They vow aggressive organizing campaigns, toe-the-line treatment for politicians (read that Democrats) and an emphasis on consolidation and efficiency -- the trends that have made management much more formidable in recent years.
Can they succeed? Harvard professor Richard Freeman forecasts that by 2000 organized labor's share of the private sector work force will shrink to 5 percent from its anemic 11 percent level at present. Responding to the proposed merger of the auto, steel and machinists unions, a Conference Board spokesman taunted: "They may be fighting over who gets to turn out the lights."
There are plenty of reasons for labor's harsh decline: Falling employment in blue-collar manufacturing industries; increasing use of temporary or part-time workers; competition from abroad; difficulties in organizing white-collar workers; increased mobility in the workplace, with young employees now facing an average of seven different jobs in their lifetimes; flat or declining wage levels as management plunges for profits and productivity through aggressive cost cutting.
Yet some of the very factors that have brought prosperity to the executive suite may provide the impetus for a labor revival. This has a lot more to do with the 84 percent of American workers who are unorganized than the 16 percent on the union rolls (counting public employees). These workers, at least a goodly portion of them, are plagued by stress, uncertainty and angst to a degree not seen since Depression days.
Many feel the old social compact between employee and employer is breaking down. Loyalty and long years on the job no longer get the rewards and recognition they used to. With corporate America restructuring at a breakneck pace, employees find themselves confronted by unexpected layoffs or buyouts and inexorable pressures to go out and find a new line of work.
While the United States continues to be a great success story on the macro-economic level, this is not readily apparent to millions of citizens who worry that their standard of living is in a decline that will ensnare their children. It is in this disenchantment and discontent that organized labor sees its chance. "The shakeup in the corporate compact of job security, stagnant wages and declining benefits ripen social conditions for union growth," according to University of Pittsburgh professors Marick F. Masters and Robert G. Atkin.
Maybe so. Maybe not. Much depends on the energy of the new leadership soon to be chosen at the AFL-CIO. Much more will depend on how well organized labor can ride a revolution in American industry that is changing the very nature and definition of work.