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Union Leaders Optimistic Despite a Loss of Members

February 23, 1986|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. — Morton Bahr, the energetic, articulate president of the Communications Workers of America, is finding himself in the same predicament as Lewis Carroll's character Alice in "Through the Looking Glass": he has to run twice as hard just to keep up.

Last year, the union recruited 35,000 new members, said Bahr, 59. But the net membership gain was only 10,000 because the Communications Workers lost 25,000 people in the breakup of the Bell System.

"It really hurts when you lose 25,000 people," Bahr said. "We have displaced members all over the country who are suffering, and the loss of members injures the union too."

Typical Problem

Bahr's problems are seemingly typical of those facing organized labor as its membership continues to erode. Nonetheless, Bahr is optimistic about the future of his union and of the entire labor movement. That same optimism was evident among many other union presidents who gathered here last week for the annual winter meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council.

One year ago at this meeting, these leaders issued a surprisingly candid, self-critical report. Now they are grappling with how to change fast enough to keep up with the forces that continue to buffet them.

"It's a long, slow process to develop new programs," Thomas R. Donahue, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said in an interview here.

Donahue has been a key force in the 13.2-million-member labor federation's efforts to revitalize itself. He heads the AFL-CIO committee that issued the landmark report called "The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions."

Need for Improvements

The study said unions had to improve communications with their own members, devote more resources to organizing, consider new forms of membership, alter some of their bargaining techniques and goals and vastly improve the way they present themselves to the public through the use of television and other modern communications tools.

Last week the federation's 35-member executive council took several steps in that direction. It completed a deal with a New York bank to offer union members a no-fee, low-interest credit card, designed a multiunion campaign to recruit 50,000 workers at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, instituted new arbitration procedures in an attempt to cut down costly fratricidal warfare in organizing, created a new unit to do strategic planning for organizing and conducted a seminar with Wall Street investment bankers to increase their financial sophistication.

Jack Sheinkman, secretary-treasurer of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, applauded the new approaches. "In a rapidly changing environment, we're not only coping with change, but anticipating change and developing means to deal with it," he said. "Our ability to do this affects our survival."

1.5 Million Members Lost

During the year, though, he acknowledged, the Clothing Workers lost members, as did the vast majority of the 94 unions in the federation. The AFL-CIO has lost 1.5 million members since 1975.

Indeed, most of the problems that have beset labor for the last decade did not go away in 1985, and some of them intensified.

Organized labor's share of the nation's work force declined to 18%, down from 18.8% in 1984, 23% in 1980 and 35% in 1954. Perhaps more ominous for the unions is the fact that union membership among workers 25 to 34 years old declined to 16.7% in 1985 from 18.2% in 1984, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Much of that decline stems from the fact that most new workers are in the service sector and only a small fraction of those are union jobs, according to Audrey Freedman, a labor economist with the New York-based Conference Board, a business research organization.

Losing Many Elections

Another subject of considerable concern to organized labor is the fact that unions continued to win less than half of the representation elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. A growing number of academic studies have concluded that increased employer resistance to unionization in the last 10 years is a major factor in those election losses.

The federation hopes to start turning the organizing problem around this year. John Sweeney, president of the Service Employees International Union, said the coordinated multiunion campaign aimed at garnering 50,000 Blue Cross and Blue Shield workers "is coming together." He said organizers from eight unions will be in the field this spring.

Donahue said such projects are indicative of increasing cooperation among unions and particularly noteworthy at this time since so many of them are scrambling for new members.

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