A witty, rather caustic critic once told the late AFL-CIO President George Meany that union members were becoming more concerned with crabgrass in their lawns than with the impact on their unions of anti-labor laws or union-busting attorneys.
Meany laughed, even though the remark was meant as an insult to show how little interest members have in their unions compared even to the minor problems of middle-class Americans. Meany took it as a compliment, as he should have.
The wage and benefit increases won by unions over the years brought millions of Americans from the working class--meaning a low-income group--into a higher income group called the middle class. It was a real achievement and should have won an enviable reputation for unions and swelled their membership rolls.
Instead, for a variety of reasons, unions have long ranked near the bottom of most public opinion polls, along with sellers of used cars and members of Congress, and they remain there. One reason that unions are not likely to be popular is that they are rarely in the news except when there is a strike. And not even union members like strikes, as was so odorously illustrated in the bitterly disputed and controversial Philadelphia and Detroit strikes of garbage collectors.
Also, the strength of unions has diminished because their membership is not growing nearly as fast as the total work force, largely because employment in heavily unionized industries has been dropping so rapidly.
Until a few years ago, though, the nouveau middle-class union members were, indeed, increasingly concerned with middle-class problems ranging from minor ones such as keeping crabgrass out of their lawns to major ones such as credit card debts and how to pay less in taxes--even if that meant less help for the poor, ill and elderly among us.
Now unions are trying to improve their public image and win more members by expanding their sales pitches and adding new inducements for workers to join. And the new organizing tactics may be helped by the downhill income slide of those workers whom the unions first brought into the middle class.
The average worker's real wages, or purchasing power, has dropped 10% since 1978. Presumably their worries about crabgrass have diminished along with the value of their wages as they try to cope with increasing economic troubles.
Unions are trying to help them cope by offering a variety of new, low-cost services to those who join unions. And, in doing that, the unions may also reverse their own downhill slide. The nation's top union leaders will be discussing such services at the AFL-CIO executive council meeting beginning Aug. 5 in Chicago.
Critics complain that the latest union offerings cater to the "me-first" attitude of Americans and divert workers and union leaders from the real need--increasing the workers' share of the nation's economic pie. By marketing unionism with everything from low-cost credit cards to insurance policies, some fear that workers will become less militant than ever and lose some of their willingness to fight exploitative bosses.
But workers need all the help they can get these days in dealing with such middle-class "advantages" as high credit card interest rates. And if the new union services are helpful and enticing enough, union membership as a percentage of the work force might start rising once again.
The most widely publicized experiment in labor's attempts to market itself with non-traditional inducements was the recent announcement that AFL-CIO unions are offering members a MasterCard with interest rates as low as 13.5%--well below the going rate at most financial institutions.
Less noticed was the creation of the AFL-CIO Union Privilege Benefits Program. It offers not just the MasterCard but an assortment of other services that will go initially to regular members and later to potential members.
For instance, the labor benefits group has already started negotiating with insurance companies for special group rates to provide workers with low-cost health benefits--as well as group life, auto, dental, prescription drug and homeowners' insurance polices--that will be in addition to their union contract benefits.
Since the 1920s, unions have sponsored their own insurance company, Union Labor Life Insurance. Its activities are limited, however, and its services should be expanded.
A legal services program is being developed with panels of union lawyers who will offer free initial consultations, examinations of legal documents and other assistance. They will offer a 30% discount on their fees for additional services, such as court appearances. Few union contracts provide legal services.