San Francisco. -- This Labor Day is different. For the first time in years, U.S. unions will not be deploring yet another year of decline, but celebrating the beginning of a union resurgence.
It's only a small start, but a definite start it is -- genuine movement toward revitalizing organized labor, one of our most important yet most troubled institutions.
As those familiar with labor are well aware, its troubles stem primarily from the constant decrease in the proportion of workers belonging to unions. Forty years ago, more than one-third of all workers belonged. Today, only about 15 percent are members.
Naturally as union representation has decreased, so has labor's influence among working people, employers, politicians, the news media and the public generally.
Finally, however, the trend is going in labor's direction. For though it's still true that only a small percentage of workers are unionized, the overall numbers have been growing steadily over the past years.
The total has risen by more than 600,000, to just about 17 million. Not coincidentally, the bulk of the growth has come since the relatively labor-friendly Clinton administration took office in 1993.
The number of union members declined in all but one of the dozen years before that, mainly because of the policies of the hostile Reagan and Bush administrations. They hindered union organizers and openly encouraged employers to wage anti-union campaigns using loopholes in the labor laws that allow them to engage in such union-busting tactics as firing strikers.
Unions aren't simply organizing more workers these days. They are organizing them in the right places -- chiefly in government work and the other service fields that have been expanding at the same time that the blue-collar fields where union strength once centered have been shrinking.
As AFL-CIO organizing director Joe Shantz says, "Where the jobs are growing, unions are growing."
They're growing so fast that just about four of every 10 federal, state and local government employees now belong to unions, compared with about one of every 10 workers in private employment.
Organizers have gotten a big boost from the continued financial advantage of union members over nonunion workers. The latest surveys show that the average compensation for organized workers last year -- $23.26 an hour including fringe benefits -- was 45 percent more than the $16.04 average for their nonunion counterparts.
But the organizers' biggest boost came with the forced resignation last month of the long-time AFL-CIO president, Lane Kirkland, whose main priorities did not include organizing.
Both men campaigning to be elected next month as Mr. Kirkland's successor -- the interim President Tom Donahue and John Sweeney of the Service Employees union -- stress organizing as their overriding concern. No matter who wins, it's certain that the AFL-CIO will devote far more of its considerable resources to organizing, particularly among poorer workers, and the young, women and minorities who make up the fastest-growing segments of the work force.
Look for more younger workers and women and minorities in union leadership positions, too. Also promised is more rank-and-file involvement in union decision-making and in planning and carrying out greatly intensified political activity.
Labor will be strengthened as well by the recently announced merger of three of the country's largest and most militant unions -- the auto workers, steel workers and machinists. The merger, to be completed by the year 2000, will bring together nearly 2 million unionists in what will be the AFL-CIO's largest affiliate.
The three unions will be able to bargain as one powerful entity with the many employers they now bargain with separately and with many others, not only in heavy industry but also in the white-collar areas of public and private employment where they've been active in recent years.
The merger agreement described it as "a new union for a new era," created to deal with "a globalized economy dominated by the mobility of capital."
"Profit-driven multinational corporations and the governments subservient to them," leaders of the three unions declared, "can neither be trusted nor expected to look out for the well-being of their workers or the welfare of the societies in which they operate. Without the countervailing power that only organized workers can achieve, the economic freedom and political democracy that are the foundation of the good life we have come to enjoy are in serious peril."
The odds now are that organized labor will indeed be able to provide the essential power. That should be a cause for celebration by all of us on labor's holiday.
Dick Meister has covered labor issues for 32 years as a reporter and broadcaster.