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Old Unions Build a New Set of U.S. Labor Relations

August 23, 1987|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — If Labor Day is coming late this year, so is attention to an important national change: Organized labor is beginning to transcend its image of pinky rings and 10-cent cigar smoke to regroup as a force in modern U.S. political and economic life. By 1988, its hitherto waning political influence could be on the upswing.

After all, it could hardly go down. The conservative years of the early and mid-1980s marked a nadir of labor credibility on all fronts. Labor's share of the national work force and union success in representation elections were both on a downward slide. Futurists openly dismissed unions and labor leaders as dinosaurs; then the 1984 presidential election--when the AFL-CIO anointed Walter F. Mondale, only to see him carry one state--seemed to prove their point.

To be sure, talk of a late-1980s turnabout has to be more tentative than conclusive. Basic economic forces are still not favorable to work-force organizing--not with jobs migrating from Frost Belt assembly lines to Sun Belt sweatshops, Taiwan and service industries. What clearly has changed, though, is the way union strategists show greater wisdom in deploying their not-inconsiderable resources. Most important, they seem to be giving up yesterday's glory dreams--of hand-picking Democratic presidential nominees, captaining great coalitions for "Social Justice" or making every year's wages in autos or steel set a new record.

None of that works anymore. Union members--and potential enlistees--prefer realistic bread-and-butter economics to grandiose political blueprints or Brie-and-Chablis alliances. And it's precisely this basic-issue game that union leaders now seem to be playing with renewed public sensitivity and good timing.

Much has changed since 1984, when the simultaneous deflation of Mondale, "reactionary liberalism" and AFL-CIO hubris paved the way for a Republican landslide--and, ultimately, for today's public fatigue with Reagan domestic policy. Since last winter, poll after poll has shown Americans favoring new policy directions rather than continued pursuit of Reagan ideology. Demand for more government activism and increased federal spending has been rising. And once the Democrats recaptured the U.S. Senate in 1986--with labor playing a critical role--union leaders saw the opportunity for a whole new political and economic agenda.

This has indeed been unfolding. Tax cuts and industrial deregulation are starting to look like yesterday's themes. The debate is shifting away from laissez faire to tougher trade laws, restraint of mergers, partial re-regulation in some industries (air travel, for one) and increased federal spending in areas--highways, the environment, housing--where public demand has been building. This time, labor is riding with the trend. In addition, the AFL-CIO has put its strategic chips on a number of specific new major proposals: an increase in the minimum wage to $4.65 an hour by 1990; a bill proposed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) requiring business to provide employees with certain minimum health insurance coverage; legislation to oblige businesses to give employees unpaid parental leave; catastrophic health insurance, and a requirement that firms over a certain size must give employees notice of plant closings.

By no means will all these be enacted. Nor should they. Some would overburden the federal budget; some would weigh too heavily on business, small business in particular. But in each case, supporters can produce favorable public opinion polls. For example, a recent survey found a whopping 86% majority favoring plant-closing legislation. In general, at least, these are new directions the public wants to explore. Politically, the AFL-CIO has found itself an acceptable, even mildly popular agenda--and now surprised business organizations find themselves on the defensive.

Even labor's mid-August decision to oppose the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork could be an influence-building move. To date, the anti-Bork effort has been led by cultural pressure groups of dubious credibility in Middle America. AFL-CIO involvement may focus debate--and Bork's possible vulnerability--on business and economic issues.

Ingredient No. 2 in labor's incipient rebound is that its new aggressiveness is not just a matter of politics and legislation. A number of unions are also getting involved in the nitty-gritty of capitalism itself--corporate finance.

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