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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The new year has brought a sharp increase in labor conflict. Public employee unions in Wisconsin and Ohio are battling Republicans in the legislature and the governor's office. In Providence, Rhode Island, the city has fired nearly 2,000 union teachers.

(Soundbite of protests)

CROWD: Teachers united will never be defeated.

BLOCK: Even the NFL is having trouble. Owners and players are at an impasse, meaning ESPN is on the labor beat.

(Soundbite of ESPN broadcast)

Unidentified Man: As the clock ticks toward pigskin Armageddon, federal mediator, George Cohen, beckoned the owners back to the site of mediation.

BLOCK: NPR's Don Gonyea reports that these conflicts, taken together, highlight how the face of organized labor has changed.

DON GONYEA: Unions remain a major player in American politics, pouring money and manpower into elections and other public policy debates. But labor's numbers have been shrinking for decades. And right now, only about 12 percent of the U.S. workforce belongs to a union.

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein at the University of California, Santa Barbara says go back 50 years and the typical unionized worker in America looked like this...

Professor NELSON LICHTENSTEIN (History, University of California, Santa Barbara): It would be a blue-collar male working in a factory. The auto union had a million and a half members. The steelworkers had a million. So it would be a male, 45-year-old who was, you know, worked with his hands.

GONYEA: In those days, before imports changed everything for the U.S. car companies, labor/management relations were perpetually rocky.

Here's how Orville Spencer, then a United Auto Workers local president in Michigan, described it to NPR in 1988.

Mr. ORVILLE SPENCER (Former United Auto Workers Local President, Michigan): Used to, you'd lose a lot of sleep on how bad the company put the screws to you during your working-hour shifts. And the next night I'd lose sleep on laying there giggling on how bad I put it to them.

GONYEA: But pressured by foreign competition, the UAW and the car companies made a kind of peace. Both sides came to realize the shared stakes. Here's how current UAW President Bob King put it recently.

Mr. BOB KING (President, United Auto Workers): Nobody in the world can quarrel with the results and quality in Ford. That is driven as much by the UAW as it is by Ford, because it's a strong partnership, because of our strong respect, we've done it together.

GONYEA: But these days, the UAW is a much smaller organization. And in 2011, the total number of workers in the public sector who belong to a union is now greater than the number of private sector union members. So, remember that typical union member of a half-century ago? Here's how Nelson Lichtenstein describes today's version.

Prof. LICHTENSTEIN: It would be a hospital technician or nurse or a home health care worker or a schoolteacher or a female public employee of some sort.

GONYEA: Which brings us to those big union protests in Wisconsin, which have been going on for more than two weeks now.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Woman: When I say union, you say power. Union.

CROWD: Power.

GONYEA: Among the most prominent voices in Wisconsin is the teachers union. The National Education Association, with more than three million members, is now the largest union in the country, having surpassed the Teamsters more than a decade ago.

Here's Wisconsin political analyst Jeff Mayers.

Mr. JEFF MAYERS (Wisconsin Political Analyst): And in Wisconsin, the teachers union is viewed as the most powerful white-collar union, the most powerful public employees' union.

GONYEA: Mayers then adds.

Mr. MAYERS: I think the people on the conservative side would call them a worthy opponent, you know. And so, but they're often vilified by conservatives and Republicans because they play such a big role in elections.

GONYEA: It's that clout that has helped the unions turn out so many people in the ongoing protests.´┐ŻBut it's also the thing that makes them an important target for conservative politicians.

In the short run, the GOP attack on bargaining rights may cause a backlash in the 2012 elections. But if the Republican legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere do succeed in curtailing collective bargaining rights, unions could be weakened for many years to come.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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