Labor Walkouts Losing Effect in U.S.?

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

This week's brief national strike by the United Auto Workers against General Motors Corp. may be among the last of its kind, labor economists and analysts say.

"National strikes are going to be very, very rare," said Barry Bluestone, dean of the public policy school at Northeastern University in Boston. "The reason is that unions are very weak and the companies aren't much stronger."

Strikes have declined in use quite simply because they're a less effective weapon for employees to wrest concessions from management. But what will replace labor's traditional leverage?

Initially, unions are turning to broader political action to meet members' needs. And increasingly, workers recognize that their fates are tied to their employers' prosperity, and are exploring more collaborative methods of bargaining.

"Strikes hurt both sides and shrink the pie," said Barry Hirsch, an economics professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. "What workers clearly want is more voice, more cooperation, and they'd like to do it in a non-adversarial way."

The UAW-GM settlement is noteworthy for the union's willingness to shoulder retiree health care through a new trust fund. And by shedding that responsibility, the country's largest automaker becomes more competitive with companies that have lower health care costs.

Strikes work best when they threaten a vibrant and growing company with lost revenue in part because there's plenty of money to go around, said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor think tank.

"This is not the classic strong, profitable company with a tough, vital union," Bernstein said of GM and the UAW. "It's really two major institutions that have been racked by global change and are trying to find their way in the world."

Just as U.S. manufacturers have lost market share to foreign competitors, unions have seen membership decline, to less than 8 percent of the private sector work force from 30 percent in the early 1960s. Union jobs have moved overseas or been replaced by automation; jobs added to the economy tend to be non-union.

Companies now can replace striking employees with non-union workers or outsource operations, making work stoppages less effective.

"In our era, management and capital have more freedom to walk away from the table than labor does," said Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Employers have many more tools to keep production running."

Another reason union membership has declined is the matrix of federal laws that give employees much of what unions used to bargain for, said Randel Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Unions have become less relevant because the employers are treating the employees better and the federal government has stepped in," Johnson said. "This is probably the last national strike."

Strikes themselves are more heavily regulated than in the middle of the last century. Sit-down strikes, sabotage and intermittent strikes are now cause for firing, and in some industries such as hospitals elaborate notifications are required, Zullo said.

As a result, unions are pushing for universal health care and other pro-worker government programs at the local, state and federal levels.

"They have to achieve some benefits for the broad population to eliminate that as one of the issues they have to fight for at the bargaining table," Zullo said.

And workers are joining together in loose-knit groups and professional associations that play some of the roles of a traditional union a trend some academics have termed open source unionism.

"Unorganized workers often have informal networks and strategies they employ to try to get more," Zullo said. He noted the emergence of worker centers often funded by nonprofit organizations that provide tactical and legal resources for workers.

To be sure, service unions are continuing to grow, as their industries are expanding and are harder to outsource. Many health care providers, hotel and restaurant workers, and teachers still find their unions useful.

"There will be other types of strikes, probably more in retail and supermarkets," predicted Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics and labor studies at Penn State Abington.

And if the balance of power tips too far in favor of the employer, unions will again become attractive to more people.

Already, Golden said, surveys show an unsatisfied demand for union membership, with more workers interested in joining unions than there are actual members. The phenomenon is known as the representation gap.

Certainly, labor leaders will keep the strike threat available, though likely at strategic locations. Said Zullo, "I do believe that labor conflict is becoming more regional than national.

This article was originally published on Thursday, September 27, 2007, by Newhouse News Service.