UNIONS IN TRANSITION: Entering the Second Century by Seymour Martin--Ed. Lipset

UNIONS IN TRANSITION: Entering the Second Century

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December marks the centenary of the American Federation of Labor; its leaders, however, prefer to represent the alliance as 105 by dating the founding to a predecessor organization formed in 1881, mainly for lobbying purposes. In the event, sociologist Lipset has taken the occasion to solicit informed evaluations of the domestic labor movement's achievements and failures during its first 100 or so years. There's no real consensus in the collection's 17 essays. In a windup piece, for example, the editor remarks on the increasing impotence of US trade unions ""unable to retain and recruit members and to bargain effectively."" Indeed, he notes, on a proportionate numerical basis, America's labor movement ranks as the weakest in the industrialized world. By contrast, Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, confidently asserts it's premature to write organized labor's obituary. In like vein, Walter Galenson points out that unions have experienced tougher times than these (e.g., during the depth of the Great Depression) and made strong recoveries. Conceding that unions reduce corporate profits, Richard B. Freeman nonetheless concludes that the economy operates most efficiently when there is a sufficient number of organized and non-union employers to offer workers genuine alternatives. Another economist, Daniel K. Benjamin, takes an opposite tack, contending that unions ""encourage economically inefficient patterns of consumption and production and alter the distribution of income in ways that are arguably negative."" Along somewhat similar lines, Morgan Reynolds makes a case for what might be called coincident deregulation, i.e., repeal of federal labor law which grants trade unions certain legal privileges and immunities. Lipset weighs in with a survey of opinion polls indicating that unions are widely perceived as giving low priority to the public interest. Nor is there any substantial agreement as to how labor might regain lost ground. ""Most economic and technological trends are against unions as traditionally organized,"" observes Ray Marshall in a sympathetic briefing that draws parallels between the adaptive industrial relations characteristic of post-WW II Japan and the essentially adversarial system still prevailing in the US. But in the influential opinion of Alexander B. Trowbridge, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, global competition has vastly shrunk the range of labor's negotiating options; unions have lost the initiative, meaning substantive concessions are now facts of contractual life. Intriguing, instructive perspectives.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1986
Publisher: ICS Press