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State of the unions

National | Labor Day 2001: Organized labor loses members and struggles for relevance in the economy of the 21st century

Issue: "Trial and terror," Sept. 1, 2001

In the Golden State, organized labor walks a regular beat. In front of the 16 barn-red, country-store façades of Henry's Marketplace, a natural-foods market renowned in California for its low produce prices, United Food and Commercial Workers has for a year staged a clockwork picket.

Henry's is a non-union chain with staple-food prices that regularly undercut those at union stores; UFCW executives don't like that. Henry's has also grown nearly 50 percent since 1999, and in 2000 commanded 8 percent of California grocery sales, even though it isn't a full-service grocery store. UFCW bosses don't like that either. So pairs of picketers regularly flap leaflets ("Henry's Marketplace unfair to workers!" "Shop union stores!") at any Henry's shopper who displays the slightest interest. Most don't and, heads down, hold up a preemptory hand while wheeling a steel cart between heaping wooden bins of avocados and oranges outside the store. Some Henry's employees say they aren't interested in the union either. "This is a good company to work for," a young man working behind a Henry's meat counter told a customer who grumbled about the picketers outside: "And if we were union, our prices would be higher. I like things just fine the way they are."

Such disdain for unionism has taken hold not only among workers and the public but also within unions themselves. Labor organizations are bleeding members while largely failing in efforts to recruit new ones. Union membership rolls peaked following World War II. In 1953, 36 percent of U.S. workers were union members. Today, only 13.5 percent of workers belong to labor organizations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economic winds that blew out manufacturing and blew in an entrepreneur-heavy, service-based economy left organizing dust bowls in place of fields formerly fertile with voiceless shift workers.

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"Globalization"-the transnational expansion of trade and labor distribution-is further squeezing highly paid union workers, as U.S. employers choose less expensive overseas production options. Analysts, even those sympathetic to organized labor, say unions today face a multi-faceted struggle: for a new constituency, a new public image, and relevance in a new economy where many workers believe they can flourish without any unions at all.

"Organized labor has fallen on hard times," writes Stanley Aronowitz, a liberal sociology professor at City University of New York in From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America's Future. "Once the force that encouraged government intervention in every aspect of economic life, the labor movement, over the last 20 years, has become a symbol of what many see as a surpassed system. Many younger people, who never experienced the Depression, World War II, and the days of postwar prosperity, are now mesmerized by the ideology of individual initiative and the promise of a gleaming high-tech future."

Nearly half of unionized workers work for federal, state, and local governments, rather than private industry. While government-employee unions such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) are healthier than those in private industry, they too may be shrinking: Government union rolls declined by 2 percent between 1994 and 1999.

If nothing else, falling membership numbers make a solid campaign platform: Current AFL-CIO president John Sweeney won election in 1995 in part by pledging to infuse federation membership rolls with fresh blood. On taking office, he immediately set out to make good on his promise, first by pressuring individual unions to budget more for organizing, then by launching two mammoth recruiting projects in the West: an attempt to unionize 20,000 mostly immigrant strawberry pickers in Watsonville, Calif., and a $5 million bid to organize the 60,000 construction workers who were busy turning Las Vegas into a gambler's Disneyland. But the strawberry pickers in the end defected to a smaller, independent union, and the effort to organize the builders flopped in 1999.

Some experts believe labor's parade of recent failures marched straight off the backdrop of its former triumphs. Nearly all working Americans, whether they belong to unions or not, have benefited from union efforts. The eight-hour workday, for example, is the grandchild of 19th-century labor activism, when organized craftsmen struck first for a 10-hour workday, then for an eight-hour workday. Labor unions also succeeded in their push for employment conditions many American workers now consider standard-such as a safe, hygienic work environment, coffee breaks, pensions, health insurance, and paid vacations. But through those and similar successes, unions may have rendered themselves obsolete.

"There is a whole body of law that has made what labor unions do irrelevant," explained San Antonio labor attorney J. Tullos Wells, who has represented both labor and management during his 28-year practice. "A lot of the unions' thunder-what they had to offer-is now being offered for free by government."

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