NEW YORK - America's labor movement, not so long
ago seen as corrupt and weakening while the country enjoyed an
economic boom, showed its latest signs of resurgence this week
at American Airlines.
Nearly half a million passengers have been delayed or
stranded since a pilots' sickout at the nation's No. 2 airline
began a week ago.
And while passengers fumed Friday over the Allied Pilots
Association action to protest the airline paying some pilots
less than others, unionists and others pointed out this was
evidence of a stronger labor movement rebounding from a
Contrary to popular belief, union membership is actually
growing and public support for organized labor is more than many
"American business keeps underestimating the labor
movement," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor
Education Research at Cornell University.
"They say: 'There's an economic boom, everyone's happy,
unions are no longer appropriate or relevant.'"
But she believes this view is wrong as society evolves from
one based on labor-intensive heavy manufacturing industries to a
21st century civilization of high-tech services.
Just as companies have adjusted to the changing times, so
have unions, Bronfenbrenner told Reuters. They are becoming more
focused and efficient in an effort to rid themselves of the old
image of militancy and corruption.
Government labor statistics show the number of union members
in the United States rose by 100,000 last year to 16.2 million
the first increase in five years. However, the percentage of
the total U.S. workforce that is unionized slipped from 14.1 to
"It's partly economic we're doing so well," said AFL-CIO
spokeswoman Lane Windham. "There have been lots of new jobs
added. And unions are more involved in recruiting new members.
"We had not been organizing well, but it's changing now
under (AFL-CIO) President (John) Sweeney," Windham said. "The
goal is to hold elected officials accountable and to get
employers to allow workers to organize."
One problem, she said was that "labor laws are stacked
against organization in the workplace.
"The right to organize is a constitutional right and too
many times it has only been seen as an employer's right instead
of the workers'. We want companies to follow the law."
The relevant law, The Wagner Act, was passed in 1936 during
the Great Depression and replaced the National Industrial
Recovery Act of 1933, that was earlier ruled unconstitutional.
The Wagner Act restated many of NIRA's provisions and
established the legal basis for unions.
Citing studies by the AFL-CIO, which represents 72 major
U.S. unions, Windham said roughly half the working people polled
said they would choose to join a union. "If there are no
threats to fire them, we see lots of support for unions."
Cornell's Bronfenbrenner agreed. "Look at the UPS strike
last year, the public sided 2-to-1 with the unions, according to
our polls. People had thought they would be very angry they
couldn't send their packages."
She also cited a Bell Atlantic strike over contracting-out
issues. "When they see temporary and part-time jobs and no good
benefits or jobs not protected, people are asking, 'Well who is
benefiting from this economic boom? It's not us.'"
"Public sympathy is crucial, especially when they face a
hostile government and labor laws," said Bronfenbrenner.
Besides recruitment, unions are also concerned with issues
of pay and benefits and the increasing practice of contracting
out work or making positions temporary or part-time. "Although
there has been an uptick in wages, they are still not at the
same level as in the '70s," said Windham.
"People are having a hard time raising families. Even
though the economy is up, a lot of the new jobs are not good
jobs. We campaigned for a minimum wage, now we're pressing for a
Bronfenbrenner said as corporations become more
international, there is a need for unions to form alliances with
foreign workers and become more strategic, getting to understand
not only members' needs, but also those of management and
shareholders and politicians.
During a recent rubber workers' dispute at
Bridgestone-Firestone, workers contacted fellow workers around
the world, using the Internet to win support through e-mail
campaigns and "cyber-picketing" she said.