What Happened To Organized Labor?

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Unions have achieved additional gains among public employees in the 1990s—and have suffered losses in other industries, with aggregate membership continuing to fall. As a result the distinction between private and public employment has become more marked. Does the labor movement have a future in the private sector? There are a number of positive signs that it does. The growing number of jobs with shop-floor autonomy, the example of public employees, and the ongoing strength of the economy all bode well for it. The election of John Sweeney and other activists to top positions in the AFL-CIO is another promising development. Finally, several recent strike victories have encouraged union activists. In 1994 the United Rubber Workers struck Bridgestone/Firestone over the company’s refusal to follow the industry bargaining pattern. After a year the URW was in disarray, but then it merged with the larger Steelworkers, made a dramatic comeback, and negotiated a favorable contract in late 1996. The Teamsters’ short, highly successful strike against United Parcel Service in the fall of 1997 similarly showed the residual power of organized labor.

It would be foolish to predict the timing or magnitude of the next real union revival, but it would be even more dangerous to suggest that there will be none or that the labor movement will no longer play a significant role in American society. The experiences of the last century suggest, on the contrary, that twenty-first-century union membership will rise and fall with changes in economic and political conditions, that autonomous (probably service) workers will make up its core, that employers will oppose unions but deal with them when it is mutually advantageous to do so, and that the economic environment will largely define the possibilities at any given time. Unions are here to stay—and to struggle.