- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2000

After years of decline in membership, union membership has leveled off, fueling recent commentary that unions are on the upswing. Particularly in light of the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests and the anticipated protests in Washington this week for the World Bank-International Monetary Fund spring meetings, the labor movement could be perceived as being stronger than ever.

But a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Union membership, now at 16.5 million, is equal to 13.9 percent of the workforce the lowest union density since 1936. Unions have quite a hurdle to overcome to sustain even their current membership levels.

Union power was originally built on three pillars: good wages, job security and working conditions. Today, most employees enjoy those items without having to join a union. The increasing prevalence of stock ownership, low unemployment and the high demand for skilled workers have eased concerns about job security, and employee involvement in workplace decisions has eroded the old distinctions between labor and management.

To maintain their current workforce share, unions must increase current membership by 200,000 annually (and stop average annual membership losses of 80,000). Out of this necessity, unions have developed a strategy to increase members by finding a common rallying point, and reaching out to new groups.

The common rallying point is to attack international bureaucratic institutions such as the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Unions claim that these groups are in collusion with large multinational corporations to export jobs from high-wage countries to those in the developing world, where workers are paid much less. Because most Americans have no understanding of what these world bodies do, it is easy to attack them with impunity, despite the fact that these organizations are designed (although they may not always be successful) to help countries develop trade and help get their economies on a strong, stable path.

In addition to organizing street protests against these international institutions to draw attention to their cause, unions must also bring in completely new constituencies to survive. Their new target: immigrants and women.

Unions recently announced support for granting amnesty to illegal workers a dramatic turnaround from past policy. With this outreach, unions can help new arrivals to this land while also increasing their numbers.

Of all the groups in the work force, unions have had the most trouble recruiting women, as can be evidenced by the fact that almost half of the work force is now made up of women, but just over one-third of union workers are women. To correct this imbalance, union leaders have proposed a proactive, pro-women's agenda in an effort to attract this important political constituency.

Unions are now pushing for comparable-worth legislation in 22 states an issue which strikes a responsive chord in all working women. No woman wants to be paid less than a man for doing the same job, nor should she be. Under law (the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), women are assured equal employment opportunity and equal pay, but unions and other special-interest groups claim that women make 75 cents for every dollar men do. However, the supposed "gap" is simply the ratio of full-time men and women's median annual earnings. The 75-cent statistic fails to account for differences in factors determining wages, such as experience and tenure, years and type of education, hours of work, and industry and occupation. When such factors are accounted for, the pay "gap" shrinks considerably by some estimates to zero.

Another women's issue on the union agenda is paid family leave, another hot-button issue with working mothers. With women making up a larger percentage of the work force than ever before, taking time off to care for a newborn or newly adopted child certainly warrants public discussion, but the issue of how to pay for it needs careful exploration.

President Clinton's solution, with the support of unions, is to let states pay for family leave using unemployment insurance. But unemployment insurance, funded by state and federal payroll taxes, is designed to help job losers by providing them with partial wages until they can get back on their feet. Paying for family leave with unemployment insurance is a financially risky proposition; even with today's strong economy, almost every state's unemployment insurance trust fund will drop below recommended solvency levels within three years. The result: Payroll taxes could have to be raised by up to 900 percent in certain states to make up for that funding shortfall.

Instead, a better solution would be to use comp-time or flex-scheduling. In fact, surveys have found that many workers prefer time off with pay to overtime pay.

If unions are to survive in the growing sectors of the economy, they will have to find a new rationale for their existence, not rally against international symbols and propose counterproductive policy mandates that hurt the competitiveness of American business and the people it employs. If they don't, they will remain on the fringes of our robust economy.

Ronald E. Bird is chief economist at the Employment Policy Foundation.

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