The merger announced recently among the auto workers, steel workers and machinists unions reflects weakness, rather than revival, of organized labor.
The three large unions, which total about two million workers, are rapidly losing members, revenues and political clout. Like corporations in trouble, unions too grab at mergers for survival.The numbers are staggering. Over the past 20 years, membership in the auto workers' union has shrunk by half, to about 800,000. The steel workers' union has fallen by about 30 percent, the machinists by 40 percent.
There are many reasons, mostly beyond the unions' control. Competition from abroad and a 20-year slowdown in productivity have stripped unions of their power to raise wages. Manufacturing, the traditional bastion of union organizing, continues to slip behind hard-to-organize service industries.
The federal government under Presidents Reagan and Bush did little to enforce laws that protect labor's right to organize.
The giant union will create economic weapons that the individual unions, operating alone, would not carry. Used strategically, the new confederation's $1 billion strike fund could tip the balance in a tough strike. The merged union will end self-destructive competition among the three separate unions to sign up new members.
Yet the merger addresses none of the causes behind the nose dive that has left unions with less than 16 percent of the work force, about half the level in the 1950s. Nor will substitution of a mega-size union do anything to stop the 20-year slide in real wages, after accounting for inflation.
By Michael M. Weinstein
New York Times News Service