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Labor Unions for the New Century

A steady decline in the power of labor unions in the United States and most of Europe has led to some speculation that collective organizing of working people to campaign for their rights may be turning into a relic. But many analysts say labor associations worldwide are regrouping and looking for ways to better respond to global economy.

Declining Membership

Earlier this month, an alliance of twelve labor groups in California defeated all four of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures that would curtail workers’ rights and benefits. The alliance representing two-and-a-half million workers -- mostly nurses, teachers, police officers and firefighters –- proved that U.S. labor is still able to wield power. But membership in labor unions has steadily declined since the 1950s when one third of the U.S. work force was organized.

“We are now toward the very bottom of the industrialized countries in terms of the representation of workers,” says David Brody, a professor of labor history at the University of California and author of the new book: Labor Embattled.

“In the private sector, we are below 8 percent now and that’s lower than it’s been for more than a century,” addas Professor Brody. By comparison, union membership is almost ten times higher in Scandinavian countries. More than 80 percent of the work force in Sweden and nearly 80 percent in Denmark and Finland are unionized. Union membership in other western European countries ranges from 20 percent to 50 percent of the labor force. At only nine percent of the labor force, France has the lowest union membership of all western European nations. But its workers have been known for organizing massive strikes that garner media attention and get results.

U.S. Labor Focuses on Economy

Robert Tobias, professor of public management at American University in Washington and former president of the National Treasury Employees Union, says the European unions are involved in politics far more than the American unions.

“The European unions differ quite dramatically from the American unions in the sense that American unions have pursued the rights of individual workers through the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements. In Europe, the unions have become a part of the political process and the political effort, and have pursued rights to the creation of legislation,” says Professor Tobias.

Many countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Israel have labor parties representing their interests. The American labor movement has always been focused on the economy and job markets. Many historians say this has made it more independent and flexible. The power of American unions, they say, is based on the solidarity of workers and their willingness to go out on strike. But that changed dramatically in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan broke an air-traffic controller’s strike, replacing government employees who had walked out. Since then, economic changes have eroded the power of unions in many parts of the world.

Labor in Global Economy

Many analysts cite the growing power of multi-national corporations that can move their production lines from one country to another in search of cheap labor. Corporate leaders have responded by accusing unions of making the workforce inflexible. The difficulty of hiring temporary workers, firing those no longer needed and cutting down on benefits makes some employers reluctant to open up new jobs. They also say too many workers’ protections make it hard to jumpstart sluggish economies and increase unemployment. Labor and socialist parties in many countries, including Britain and Germany, have succumbed to some of these economic pressures. University of California’s history professor David Brody says losses in the labor movement do not signal its inevitable demise.

“It’s not as if this is unprecedented what we are seeing now. That is, where so much manufacturing has now moved to less developed countries, in earlier days, a similar process took place within the United States, where you had a heavily industrialized sector in the northeast focusing around textiles, and industries like that, clothing [for example]. In the south, they opened up factories competing with those northeastern factories, but with cheap labor. And the northeastern industries declined. So it’s not exactly a new process, but it’s more striking.”

Professor Brody says that as many U-S industries developed from local to regional and then to a national level, so did unions. Today, he argues, the globalization of industries and services requires the internalization of labor unions. But he concedes it may be difficult due to different legal systems governing unions in different countries.

But Steve Stallone, a spokesman for the California-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union, says globalization can also work in employees’ favor. He recalls a 1998 example in which his union supported the quest of a maritime union in Australia.

“Basically, a lot of their longshore workers were locked out and the government brought in police to kick the union workers off the docks and tried to run the dock with scabs [i.e. non-union workers]. The very first ship that was scab-loaded and sent to the U-S, we just refused to touch it. We would not unload it. And the cargo, which on this particular ship was refrigerated beef and lamb, just sat in the harbor in Los Angeles and rotted. We weren’t the only union in the world to take similar actions against scab-loaded ships from Australia and so the result was that basically they had to cave in and make a new deal with the union and gave the workers back their jobs.”

Mr. Stallone notes that in some countries union membership has grown in the past decade, for example, more than a hundred percent in South Africa, about 90 percent in Chile and about 60 percent in Bangladesh. He adds that there is a growing number of global associations, such as the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which has more than 230 affiliated labor organizations in some 150 countries and territories.

Most analysts say regardless of the number of union members, the labor movement will not die as long as there are employers and employees. If workers feel they are exploited, sooner or later they find ways to organize and fight for their interests.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.