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Thinking of Labor

September 01, 1986

In those places where Labor Day parades still survive, there may be smiles on the faces of marchers, but they are forced smiles. The old march step will have little bounce to it. These are not particularly happy days for organized labor in the United States.

Consider, for instance, that the secretary of labor can issue a 3 1/2-page-long Labor Day statement and not once use the word union . But then Washington is occupied by an Administration that made clear its view of organized labor early on. When air traffic controllers struck to protest abominable working conditions, the Administration settled things by firing them all.

The record has been maintained to this day--and not just with organized labor--as the Administration has sought to undercut the minimum wage, to weaken prevailing-wage legislation and to overturn a 40-year-old ban on industrial home work. There, too, was a laissez-faire attitude that invited business to do a little union-busting along the line. Pensions and other benefits vanished as mergers and Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings proliferated. Two-tier wage scales became the vogue.

Businesses fled to cheaper labor markets abroad. Those that stayed gave labor the choice of working for lower wages or not working at all. Inflation is down to about 2.4% this year. But even after four years of recession-forced union concessions, pay increases have averaged less than half that. Unemployment figures mask the fact that more than 11 million manufacturing jobs disappeared between 1979 and 1984. Half the workers who found other jobs did so at less pay.

The Administration's boasts of jobs created gloss over the reality that many are temporary or part-time positions that do not carry benefits such as overtime and insurance. There is particular pressure to cut the salaries of the millions of women who joined the labor market, many of them to balance the family budget.

Labor has caused some of its own problems through occasional excessive demands in a declining economy and isolated instances of corruption within leadership ranks. But the perception that the nation's economic woes are rooted solely in high wages is unfair and misleading. Labor's record of wage and benefit concessions, and its lack of strikes, during the recession demonstrates the unions' willingness to work with business to overcome common economic misfortune.

All the news is not bad. Savvy business leaders with an eye on long-range economic stability recognize the benefits of bargaining with a well-trained organized work force. One example is that of General Motors and the United Auto Workers concerning the manufacture of Japanese-designed autos in this country. There are new forward-looking contracts between the Communications Workers of America and AT&T and the seven regional Bell companies, although some agreements came only after brief work stoppages.

In particular, a proposed contract between the CWA and Pacific Telesis (the parent firm of Pacific Bell) is a model, with a historic no-layoff provision, a form of profit-sharing and extensive retraining programs. It would enable employees and management to work toward a common goal rather than treat each other as adversaries.

At the same time, 44,000 members of the United Steelworkers are locked out by USX Corp. as it seeks to eliminate jobs, cut wages and impose arbitrary work rules. LTV Corp., the second-largest steel firm, used Chapter 11 to impose yet another round of wage reductions.

But even with wage concessions and a lower-value American dollar, business limps along and the trade deficit soars. It should be clear by now that there is much more to fault for the weakness of the U.S. economy than high wages and union demands. There is only one certain way to build a more prosperous economic future benefiting all Americans: for labor and management to work together, in partnership with a national government that is willing to safeguard the traditional rights of American working men and women.

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