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U.S. Data Unfairly Magnifies Union Woes

August 27, 1986|HARRY BERNSTEIN

For the past three years, it has appeared that unions were suffering yet another body blow: Government figures seemed to show that non-union workers were getting bigger wage increases than union members. But the figures are badly misleading.

No one is challenging the accuracy of these numbers, but, unless they are put in perspective, they do make it seem that the hard-pressed labor movement is in deeper trouble than it really is. And many employers, trying to keep unions out of their establishments, use the figures to try to persuade their workers that joining a union is just not worth the cost of the dues.

Even before the wage numbers were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on July 28, things had not been looking good for organized labor:

- Union members were making up a smaller and smaller proportion of the work force.

- Union-backed political candidates were losing more and more elections.

- Large unions were suffering heavy membership losses because of massive layoffs in the depressed smokestack industries.

- Organized labor has been facing increased militancy among anti-union employers aided by union-busting attorneys and consultants.

Probably the most frequently used indicator of labor's diminished strength was the fact that union membership had dropped to less than 19% of the work force today from a peak of about 35% in 1953. The actual number of union members has remained relatively steady for the past several years--close to 20 million. But union strength had clearly declined as the nation's work force increased in size over the years.

But now come those stories suggesting that unions are losing one of their major advantages: better wages and benefits. A primary reason that workers join unions is to improve their standard of living. Take away that motive and union organizers would have a harder time than ever.

Even if workers realize the flaws in the latest BLS estimates, they aren't likely to flock into unions. After all, for a variety of reasons, more than 80% of America's workers have decided that union membership isn't worth the price of admission. But it is important to keep a proper perspective on figures from any source, even the reliable Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The latest BLS study showed that union members averaged wage hikes of only 2.5% in the past 12 months, for example, compared to 4.1% for non-union workers. Not mentioned, though, is the fact that it would take decades for non-union workers to catch up to their unionized counterparts, even if the rare situation of the past three years were to continue, which is highly unlikely.

The catch-up problem for non-union workers stems from the huge wage gap between them and union workers.

In 1983, for instance, union-represented workers had a median weekly wage of $386, compared to $288 for those not covered by union contracts. That was a 34% advantage, and the gap was narrowed only slightly to 33% in 1984. And the BLS reports that last year the advantage enjoyed by union workers remained the same: 33%, with a median weekly wage of $419 for unionists and $315 for those outside unions.

In addition to the still huge wage gap, there are other, fairly obvious factors that should be considered, but are often ignored, when comparing BLS figures for union and non-union workers.

For instance, take a low-wage, non-union worker who had been earning the $3.35 hourly minimum required by law.

These days, the minimum is often not enough to attract employees to jobs in such places as fast-food eateries, which are typically non-union.

Many of those places have had to boost wages to get enough workers. Several chains report wage hikes of 65 cents an hour; that means those workers got a pay raise of about 19%. But when a union worker earning $10 an hour gets a similar 65-cent pay hike, it means only a 6.5% boost.

Such self-evident points are not mentioned directly in BLS comparisons of union and non-union wages, but, without them, it seems as though the battered unions are, indeed, being battered harder than ever.

This doesn't mean that workers covered by major union contracts haven't been hurt recently. First-year increases in the 261 major contracts covering at least 1,000 workers each have been averaging only 1.2%. This is the lowest in the 19 years that the BLS has kept such records. And that is an average. Union workers in steel, airlines and some other industries have been taking cuts. Major manufacturing companies so far this year have reduced wages and benefits by as much as $3.15 an hour.

In most of those wage-cutting instances, however, union contracts do provide some sweeteners, such as profit-sharing plans, lump-sum bonuses that are not counted as wage hikes and an increased voice in the corporate decision-making process.

In sum, unions are not on the comeback road, at least not yet. But there is less reality to some of their apparent troubles than their enemies would like to believe.

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