Originally created 07/31/98

Strikes gain less attention



WASHINGTON -- The autoworkers' strikes that brought General Motors Corp. to a virtual halt won workers at two aging parts plants a bit of job security, at least until 2000.

But while labor celebrated its solidarity on the picket line as a victory, the strikes, with limited goals, were far different from the dramatic showdowns of the union movement's glory days. Today, unions trying to regain the clout of the past find themselves working in a different world.

"The reality is that less than 10 percent of private sector workers belong to unions," said Richard Hurd, a Cornell University professor of labor. "In that situation, a union-management confrontation like the GM strike is not as likely to attract attention as it once was."

As GM prepared to begin turning out cars again today, the labor movement's larger troubles remained.

A few decades ago, a strike that shut down the world's biggest automaker would have captivated the nation. Just after World War II, when a third of workers belonged to unions, and manufacturing was the bulwark of the nation's economy, people everywhere had a stake in major strikes. New health benefits or higher wages won by one group of workers would ripple through labor agreements across the nation.

Today, that's not so. The latest GM stoppage was more about protecting the status quo at two Flint, Mich., plants -- at a time when workers fear their jobs will be moved out of the country -- than about seeking future gains.

The last strike to dominate the headlines was the Teamsters' walkout at United Parcel Service last summer. The UPS workers received more attention than the autoworkers, partly because theirs was a national strike, but mostly because the UPS strike directly affected more consumers: The company controlled 80 percent of the small-package delivery market.

And while an existing contract limited the United Auto Workers to striking over local health and safety issues, the Teamsters were free to cast the UPS strike as a stand against increasing part-time work at the expense of full-time jobs. That message struck a chord with the public.

"The UPS situation is a modern situation," Mr. Hurd said. "It's related to how we purchase products these days. We buy them through catalogs and TV appeals. It's reflective of our increasing reliance in our economy on various services."

"The GM strike is a reflection of what the core of our economy used to be," he said.

The similarity between the two strikes, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman says, is "worker solidarity."

She noted that in 1997 the nation had fewer strikes than it had seen in any of the last 50 years. At the same time, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service helped resolve 5,000 labor-management disagreements.

To Ms. Herman, this says that labor-management relations are evolving to include more partnerships and fewer confrontations.

Two weeks ago, when nearly 18,000 United Airlines passenger service employees voted to join the International Association of Machinists, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney trumpeted the decision as "a great harbinger of labor's new vitality and appeal."

But Mr. Sweeney himself says labor will become irrelevant if it doesn't begin to build its ranks, and he has pushed affiliated unions to devote more resources to organizing.

Despite signing up 400,000 new union members last year, labor's share of the work force declined to 14.1 percent, down from 14.5 percent the previous year.

It has been fashionable to blame lazy labor leaders, who grew complacent about organizing as their memberships dwindled in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer, argues that labor law is the main culprit. Employers have realized they face few penalties for delaying unionization votes and firing workers for union activity, he said.