Despite some recent organizing and legislative successes, membership in the AFL-CIO has continued to fall in the last two years, according to a report issued by the federation on the eve of its biennial convention.
The 89 unions in the AFL-CIO lost 407,000 members, a decline of 3.1%, in the last two years. This brought the federation's total membership to 12.7 million, the lowest it has been since 1963. In contrast, during the last two years, the number of Americans at work has grown by nearly 6 million, a 5.5% increase, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The membership drop occurred primarily among unions that represent blue-collar industrial workers. Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, said that virtually all of the decline is a result of plant closings or layoffs stemming from technological changes or competition from imports.
Plant Closings Cited
"We have seen American plants close as corporations move production abroad in search of union-free environments where workers are paid a pittance," Kirkland said in a report written for the convention, which starts Monday in Miami.
Some industrial unions have had severe losses. The United Steelworkers of America dropped 78,000 members in the last two years--and nearly 600,000 since 1975--reflecting a severe cutback in the U.S. steel industry, competition from imports and the general transformation of the U.S. economy from manufacturing to services. The steel workers now have 494,000 members.
"I think those figures reflect that unions are . . . playing catch-up ball," said Richard Belous, a labor economist at the Conference Board, a New York-based business research organization. "Until they really start making inroads in the private sector and in the service sector, they won't be on a comeback trail."
The AFL-CIO report noted that the membership drop was less severe than it had been in the previous two-year period. AFL-CIO unions lost 649,000 members between 1983 and 1985.
Some Triumphs for Unions
And the report lauded some organizing triumphs, particularly the decision of the nation's air traffic controllers to unionize in June, six years after President Reagan fired 12,000 controllers and crushed their union. Several organizing victories in the South--historically an area hostile to unions--were cited, most prominently that of 2,100 graphics workers in Kingsport, Tenn., who voted to join the Aluminum, Brick and Glass Workers.
Overall, AFL-CIO unions won 48% of their representation elections last year, up from a low of 43% in 1982, federation officials said.
Some observers cite recent organizing victories as an indication that a labor rebound has begun. "Labor's doing a little better," said Charles Craypo, professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame and an expert on collective bargaining. "They're winning some elections."
Craypo also asserted that organized labor is beginning to regain some of the public sympathy it once enjoyed. "After all these years of concessions (at the bargaining table), people are not as inclined to blame unions," he said. "Just like the yuppies may have learned a lesson on Monday that markets that go up can come down, younger workers might be coming around, that they need some sort of organizational protection."
Indeed, a few unions--active primarily in government and the service sector of the economy--have experienced sharp growth both in the last two years and during the previous decade. The biggest gain since 1985, when the AFL-CIO held its last convention, was for the Service Employees International Union, which represents thousands of government employees of all types and thousands of janitors.
The service employees grew by 74,000 to a total of 762,000 members in the last two years. And the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) grew by 35,000, to become the largest union in the AFL-CIO with 1,032,000 members.
The federation report applauds the fact that the average wage of union members in June, 1987, was about a third better than that of non-union workers--$12.26 an hour plus $6.25 in benefits, compared to the non-union average of $9.93 per hour plus $3.37 in benefits.
However, the report said that a weak economy, import pressures, high unemployment and "no-holds-barred anti-union conduct" by employers have eroded earnings for the last six years.
Kirkland also said that "the past seven years have been hard for workers and their unions." He charged that the Reagan Administration has done "deep and lasting damage" to decades of social and economic progress for working, middle-class Americans. But he added that "the assault has been blunted" and said the current Congress has shown renewed interest in the protection of jobs, pensions and workers rights.
Kirkland and other union leaders will be discussing a variety of means to improve workers' fortunes at the AFL-CIO convention next week. The federation also is expected to approve a reaffiliation of the Teamsters Union, which will immediately add 1.7 million members and bring in a hefty increase in dues money.
And there will be considerable talk about the upcoming presidential election. But unlike the eve of the last election, in 1983, the AFL-CIO will not be endorsing a candidate at this convention as it did when it anointed Walter F. Mondale four years ago.
This time, the unions are divided among several candidates and there will be no endorsement until at least after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have been held in February.