Labor Organizations Losing Ground

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A decline in union membership in the United States has been steady and profound in recent years, despite efforts by labor organizations to get a foothold in fast-growing sectors of the economy such as telecommunications.


The annual convention of the AFL-CIO opens tomorrow in Chicago. The gathering marks the golden anniversary of the merger of the nation's two largest labor groups. It also comes at a time when some unions are threatening to quit the labor federation if it doesn't embrace radical changes. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, much has changed since 1955, a time of great hope and aspiration for American labor.


Fifty years ago, the American Federation of Labor joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the national labor movement. Here's CIO President Walter Ruther welcoming the AFL's George Meany at the founding convention in Miami Beach.

(Soundbite of 1955 conference)

Mr. WALTER RUTHER (President, CIO): I say, George to you and your colleagues, we extend the hand of friendship and the hand of fellowship. And I say together, united in the solidarity of human brotherhood, we shall go forward to build a labor movement and a better America for all people in this great and wonderful country of ours.

(Soundbite of applause)

LANGFITT: But organized labor has steadily declined over the past generation. Terry O'Sullivan heads the Laborers' International Union. He's among those calling for an overhaul of the AFL-CIO. O'Sullivan ticks off labor's shrinking numbers.

Mr. TERRY O'SULLIVAN (Laborers' International Union): We today have less members in the AFL-CIO than we did 50 years ago. In the 1950s, the American labor movement represented about 35 percent of the work force; today, it's 12.5 percent, a measly and scary 7.8 percent in the private sector.

LANGFITT: AFL-CIO President John Sweeney blames much of labor's troubles on outside forces. He cites everything from foreign competition to the policies of Republicans, including President Bush.

Mr. JOHN SWEENEY (President, AFL-CIO): We've seen a significant loss of jobs, especially in the manufacturing industry. And this is as a result of outsourcing and globalization and poor trade policies. And the external factors have been more drastic than we had ever imagined.

LANGFITT: Labor historians say unions face a harsher political landscape today than they did 50 years ago. The turning point was 1981, when President Reagan fired 12,000 striking federal air traffic controllers. Under Reagan, the National Labor Relations Board also strengthened the hand of companies to permanently replace strikers. Nelson Lichtenstein teaches labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He says businesses are tougher on unions now because they can be.

Mr. NELSON LICHTENSTEIN (University of California, Santa Barbara): Companies thought they would have egg on their face if they didn't sort of deal correctly with the unions. Well, today, none of that applies to trade unions. And I think that changed employer behavior is really one of the main reasons that the union movement finds itself in such difficulties.

LANGFITT: But labor has struggled to adapt to a changing nation. Unions are still trying to figure out how to organize growing sectors like professional technical workers, and labor's old class warfare rhetoric doesn't resonate with the younger generation. As to image, the plaid jackets and pinky rings are gone, but the face of organized labor remains mostly white, male and middle-aged, even as the work force grows more diverse. Labor leaders are still coming to grips with the rapid rise of global competition. Fifty years ago, South China was mostly poor farming villages; today, it's the world's factory floor. Facing a difficult and uncertain future, many unions are looking backwards. Richard Hurd is a professor of labor studies at Cornell and a longtime friend of the movement.

Professor RICHARD HURD (Cornell University): Many national unions are desperately holding on to their past power. They are trying to figure out: `How can we keep the jobs of our current members? How can we continue to hold on to our bargaining role as we've traditionally experienced it? How can we adapt to the changes that are happening in a way that allows us to keep doing what we've always done?'

LANGFITT: Andy Stern heads the Service Employees International Union and has led the call for change. He says organized labor has to find a new approach if it wants to survive.

Mr. ANDY STERN (Service Employees International Union): We're living in the most profound transformative economic revolution in world history, going from manufacturing to service and from national to an international economy. And it's in our face 24/7, televised, globalized, and American workers are not doing well. Our country needs new dynamic, growing organizations that have the strategy and focus and resources to do something new to be successful.

LANGFITT: If union leaders can't agree on that strategy, organized labor could see its biggest split in decades. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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