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The De-Unionization of America?

January 1, 1984 -

In North America, especially in the U.S.A., trade unions seem to be in retreat. From 1950 to 1980 union membership in the United States dropped from one-third of the labour force to 18 per cent, and further to 15 per cent in 1983. (In Canada about 40 per cent of the nonagricultural workers are members of unions.) Total membership of the steel, automobile, building and transport unions has declined by one-third. Even some of the large and traditionally powerful unions such as the U.A.W., the Teamsters and the Steelworkers have been forced to accept wage cuts. Continental Airlines laid off its 12,000 employees when it declared bankruptcy, then rehired one-third of them at half their former wages. A number of companies are instituting a two-tier wage schedule. (This is done by setting a lower wage rate for new employees.) Public sector unions have not recovered from the beating they received with the wholesale firing of 12,000 air traffic controllers.

Some American employers are taking advantage of the unions' weak position and are hiring experts for advice on how to achieve and maintain a "union-free environment." Not surprisingly, these tactics elicit hostility and resentment from unions. Harvard University labour expert Richard B. Freeman says: "You would have to go back to the rough, tough, head-busting days of the 1920s to find a comparable period when companies were as successful in fighting unions." Peter Drucker, the respected American management expert, bluntly says: "Basically, the union movement in this country is dead, not dying" (Randall Poe, "The Lone Ranger of Labor Relations," Across the Board, September 1983, p. 29). But this pronouncement calls to mind the response of Mark Twain when informed that someone had published his obituary: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Besides the growth of anti-union sentiments and union-busting tactics, there is another trend, perhaps less visible but more promising and positive: the emergence of a new spirit of cooperation between unions and management. The more astute managers realize that it is far better to lay the foundations for better labour-management relations than to score a victory in this or that anti-union campaign. According to a growing number of experts in labour relations, the old-style labour-management wars so reminiscent of those of the 1930s are outmoded, and will be overcome before long by the trend toward cooperation (Harry Bernstein, "The Trend Behind the Headlines," Vancouver Sun, November 28, 1983).

A number of large American companies are already proving this to be true. For example, a determined cooperative effort by the management of Ford and the U.A.W. led to the turn-around of an axle-transmission plant in Sharonville, Ohio, originally scheduled to be shut down because of its inefficient operation. Now it is one of Ford's most successful plants. Also, General Motors Corporation of Detroit and the U.A. W. have agreed to cooperate in developing better labour-management relations as part of their response to the Japanese competition.