- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

U.S. unions, as they mark the Labor Day holiday, are in turmoil amid declining membership and a splintered movement, although some leaders see reasons for optimism.

Union membership is down to 12.5 percent of the total U.S. work force and 8 percent in the private sector, compared with about one-third 50 years ago.

Moreover, three major unions have broken away from the umbrella AFL-CIO federation, taking more than 1.4 million of the 14-million-member labor group in a dispute over strategy.

Meanwhile, a major strike by mechanics at Northwest Airlines has failed to garner support from other unions.

Labor unions have been under pressure as globalization takes a bigger bite out of U.S. jobs. Unions say labor-protection laws and a rise in strong anti-union companies have made organizing difficult.

Labor Day, celebrated the first Monday in September, became a federal holiday in 1894. It traces its roots to the May 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, which led most other countries to celebrate May 1 as a worker holiday.

Even though most Americans acknowledge overall gains from the labor movement, some say unions have failed to keep up with the global economy.

“While at one time organized labor played a valuable role in establishing workers’ rights when there were few protected by government, today it is clinging to a world that no longer exists and, in doing so, risks becoming completely irrelevant and ineffective,” said Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But Dan Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University sociologist, said unions have played a role in promoting equality of wealth.

Since the peak in labor-union participation in the 1950s, he said, “income inequality has gone straight up, meaning a growing gap between haves and have-nots in our society.”

Some signs indicate that the worst may be over.

A Peter Hart survey for the AFL-CIO found that nearly 60 percent of working Americans are unhappy with the U.S. economy, and that a record 53 percent who don’t belong to a union would join if given the chance.

A Gallup poll showed that 38 percent of respondents, more than the previous year, said they would like to see unions have more influence.

A Harris poll, however, gives unions negative grades, similar to those of corporate America. The Harris survey found 75 percent think unions improve wages and working conditions for all workers, but most said unions were “too involved in politics.”

Mike Asensio, a labor lawyer who represents mostly employers, said companies over the past few decades “have learned to be responsive to employees’ needs,” heading off organizing drives and leaving unions with less to “sell.”

To revitalize the labor movement, Mr. Asensio said, “unions have to show they can become more relevant” by moving beyond bargaining for pay and benefits.

Tim Kane of the conservative Heritage Foundation said in a report that unions may be victims of their own success.

“The interesting cause of organized labor’s demise is perhaps earlier victories — the vast majority of Americans are now empowered and skilled to the extent that they do not need collective bargaining,” he said.

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