Unions Are Good For The U.S. And Clinton Should Say So

Unions are putting an unprecedented $35 million into the 1996 campaign, hoping to reelect Bill Clinton and bring back a Democratic Congress. Suppose they succeed. What do they want in return?

The labor movement is feeling feisty, with militants led by John J. Sweeney now running the AFL-CIO and activists leading many major unions. The AFL-CIO is spending big money on organizing drives to bring in new members. Moreover, it has had a successful "union summer" in which college students apprenticed as organizers.

But both the arithmetic and the structure of the new economy are horrendous for unionism--and getting worse. Unions make up less than 11% of the private-sector workforce, much lower than two decades ago. Researcher and former organizer Richard Rothstein calculates that with 2 million new jobs being added to the workforce every year, the union movement will need to increase its enlistments eightfold just to keep its current share from falling further.

ARCHAIC. Not only is management getting more sophisticated about fighting unions but the very structure of the economy resists unionism. In an age of the "virtual corporation," more and more employees think like entrepreneurs, not like the proletariat. The language of shop stewards and work rules seems archaic. Workers join unions in the hope of improving wages and working conditions. But in a footloose economy, with management free to outsource and downsize, unions have trouble defending even basic job security.

Still, many sectors of the new service economy cry out for unions--or something very like them. Industry claims to value high-performance work, but it readily discards loyal workers. For much of low-income America, jobs are available, but the pay is low and the prospects are precarious.

This environment gives unionism an opening, especially in the service sector. Management can move a factory to Mexico, but not a hospital, nursing home, hotel, restaurant, supermarket, or university. Even doctors are joining unions, and professors may be next. Organizing drives can succeed in these industries because the enterprise has to stay close to the customer. It is more than coincidental that AFL-CIO President Sweeney comes out of the Service Employees International Union, one of the few unions that are adding members.

Since 1992, labor has won some legislative victories, but most have been defensive. Labor blocked the Republican Congress from weakening the ban on company unions, forcing low-wage workers to take "comp time" in lieu of wages, and repealing the Davis-Bacon Act.

The Clinton National Labor Relations Board has been a tougher enforcer of the Wagner Act and its guarantees of the right to organize. But Clinton's Dunlop Commission, looking to broker a deal in which unions become more flexible and industry stops resisting unions, found no takers on the management side.

THE U-WORD. If a second Clinton Administration were truly to conclude that unions are good for the American worker (and for the Democratic Party), what else might Clinton do? First, he might learn to say the U-word in polite company. In the '30s and '40s, CIO Chief John L. Lewis was able to declare, truthfully, that "President Roosevelt wants you to join the union."

Clinton could transform the equation by declaring forthrightly that unions are good for workers and good for teamwork. He could champion international labor standards as something to protect the income security of American workers. In new campaigns for portable pensions and universal health coverage, the President could put unions at the forefront. He could identify both himself and the union movement with the remedy of gross abuses, such as sweatshops and child-labor exploitation. Clinton might visit a former sweatshop that the needle-trades union, UNITE, has organized. He could spotlight how unionization improves the lives of nursing-home workers.

The new economy resists '30s-style unionism but creates new vulnerabilities that demand '90s-style industrial democracy. Class conflict is supposedly dead, but management keeps reviving it. The labor movement will necessarily spend political capital pressing for damage-control laws such as a ban on permanent jobs for striker replacements as well as reforms that put more teeth in the Wag-ner Act. But if it is not to be a relic, labor also needs to think big. It could start by reminding Clinton that vulnerable working people are his party's most loyal base.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.