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Unions in transition: entering the second century.

Unions in Transition: Entering the Second Century.

Edited by Seymour Martin Lipset. San Francisco, CA, ICS Press, 1986. 506 pp. $29.95.

In this volume, Professor Seymour Martin Lipset has brought together a group of prominent academicians and other notables in the field of labor to examine the challenges facing U.S. unions at a time of apparent economic and political decline. The key questions to be addressed, Lipset tells us in his preface, are the inability of unions to enroll new members, an accompanying loss of political influence, and what can be done to reverse these trends. Unfortunately, not only do the answers to these questions not emerge with any clarity in this collaborative effort, even more significantly, a number of key issues are either ignored or given only cursory treatment.

Part I is designed to place American unions in a historical perspective, a job ably done by A. H. Raskin and Walter Galenson, both reaching optimistic conclusions regarding the future. In sharp contrast, Leo Troy's contribution, "The Rise and Fall of American Trade Unions,' predicts a "state of decline,' citing support losses in total membership and the proportion of the labor force organized. The underlying logic here seems to be that recent developments will continue unabated into the future, a questionable assumption indeed. As a matter of fact, Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 1983-86 point to a modest downturn in the total number of workers represented by unions, a concept which Troy consistently refuses to recognize, limiting himself instead to a dues-paying count which he computes on the basis of dues or per capita tax receipts. Even assuming that this method can be uniformly applied to all unions--which, incidentally, it can't--at best it would only yield a figure on those in union ranks who have met their full financial obligation for an entire year, hardly a realistic measure of actual union strength in a given industry, occupation, or region.

Part II deals briefly with an international comparison (Canada, Japan) and Part III is devoted to an economic analysis by Richard B. Freeman and Daniel K. Benjamin of union wage gains, productivity, and profitability. The inclusion of an article in this section by Morgan Reynolds, arguing for an end to "legal immunities and privileges of unions,' seems to be out of place because it offers little economics but instead is an impassioned plea for a repeal of all labor relations legislation and for a return to the days before the New Deal when "justice, liberty, equality of income and general prosperity' flourished under the rule of the common law.

The public sector is the subject of articles by David Lewin (focusing on sanitation workers) and Joseph W. Garbarino (college faculty) in Part IV, while an analysis of public opinion polls, by Lipset, and a recital of shortcomings on internal union democracy, by Herman Benson, form Part V. Both are informative, but no new ground is broken here.

Part VI, Participants' Observations, starts off with Gus Tyler's spirited defense of the AFL-CIO's February 1985 policy recommendations, "The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,' which, among other points, calls for a broad range of services (low cost credit cards, legal services, and health and auto insurance) to be offered to union and nonunion workers alike. A progress report of sorts on these efforts is given by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland but, not surprisingly, neither author subjects these programs to any kind of critical analysis. Finally, a striving for balance must have caused Lipset to have asked Alexander B. Trowbridge, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, to give us a "Management Look at Labor Relations.' The activities of the National Association of Manufacturers' Committee for a Union-Free Environment are not mentioned; instead, the author points to new employee-oriented approaches in human resource management which render unions superfluous. Perhaps to some, these policies may appear to be state-of-the-art; to others, however, they sound like an updated version of the findings of the old human relations school.

In a concluding chapter, Lipset tries to find an explanation for the differences in the current status of the U.S. and Canadian labor movement. Why is one faltering and the other thriving, given the similarity of their economic environments? The answer, it seems, lies not in their legal structure or in employer policies, but in Canadian cultural and political values derived from a "more communitarian orientation.'

Although the authors have ranged far and wide, one looks in vain for a trenchant discussion of some of the major challenges facing organized labor today. For example, the issues surrounding labor-management cooperation and other quality of worklife programs are left to scattered references. Also lacking is a thorough discussion of labor's political role, the alleged failure of current legislation and administrative bodies to protect workers against unfair practices and, above all, the reasons for the unremitting opposition of employers to unions. Contract concessions, two-tier wage systems, and the end of pattern bargaining are among the topics for which this oddly detached volume finds little room.

To be sure, organized labor is indeed in a time of transition, but those who are given to facile predictions may well ponder the experience of Professor George Barnett, an eminent labor authority of his day, who assured the American public that there was "no reason to believe that . . . unionism will so revolutionize itself . . . or to become in the next decade a more potent social influence than it has been in the past decade.'

These words were written in 1932!
COPYRIGHT 1987 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Cohany, Happy P.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1987
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