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Decline of Labor Unions Linked to Rise of Globalization

Labor unions are hurting. In the U.S. the loss of industrial jobs and the rise of a global economy have put pressure on the higher wages that union members have enjoyed. Union leaders hope that recruiting new members will help, but nevertheless, their influence is on the decline. International labor leaders are meeting in Geneva in early June to discuss this and other pressing issues.

The picket line, where workers bring their grievances to the streets, was once a common sight in America. But labor unions have been losing ground for decades. Fifty years ago about 35 percent of workers were union members, today less than 13 percent are.

Economist Jared Bernstein sees the decline of unions as part of a long struggle between competing forces. "Fundamentally they are arguing about how the economic pie is going to be divided."

Business leaders say high union wages and benefits are something they can no longer afford in a cutthroat world economy where sellers must keep costs low.

Mr. Bernstein adds, "One anti-union rationale you hear a great deal of is 'We can't have unions because they hurt our competitiveness, and we can't compete in a global economy if we are going to be unionized.' "

And in a global economy, unions have been marginalized says David Bonior, a union advocate and former member of the U.S. Congress. "Because of union busting and the changing economy, outsourcing and globalization, we are on a spiral downward on benefits and wages. A race to the bottom so to speak."

In the U.S. many point to the 1982 PATCO strike, when federal air traffic controllers walked off the job, as a turning point in union decline.

"After the PATCO strike it became explicitly and patently O.K. for the administration to take an anti-union stance," explains Mr. Bernstein.

American labor unions also suffer from a negative image of corruption going back to the 1930s.

But Mr. Bonior counters, "The vast majority of union officials, leaders, stewards are honest and above board and are looking out for the interest of their own workers."

Another factor is the effect of illegal immigrants on the job market.

"The union position toward immigrant labor used to be, 'Try to keep them out because they were competitors who ended up pushing wages down for union and non-union native workers,” explains Mr. Bernstein. “Now the rationale is, 'If you can't beat them, organize them.’ "

Unions contribute millions of dollars to gain political influence with candidates running for office to promote laws that favor unions. Many within labor think more of that money should go into efforts to build union membership.

"There's a big debate in the labor community today about what is the best use of the resources of the labor movement," says Mr. Bonier.

Economists and innovative companies point to new business models where labor and management work together by sharing ownership as an answer for worker rewards.

Mr. Bernstein offers this possibility: " Perhaps we could evolve to a much more fluid sharing of power, sharing of profits, sharing of ownership. We're not there yet."

As the number of union members goes down, so does labor's ability to negotiate for its members, according to Mr. Bernstein. "Right now in our country management tends to have a great deal more bargaining power than our work force. That is very non-union. And that, I think is really at the very heart of the struggle."