Organized Labor's Decline: A Diagnosis

The causes of organized labor's decline are more complex, myriad, and deep-rooted than any change in the law or in White House occupancy. Until the labor movement honestly and squarely faces fundamental issues including its own organizing lethargy and its lack of imagination in adopting new ways of serving potential members, it will remain divorced from the realities of why it no longer appeals to employees.

The labor movement has, in many instances, simply lost touch with the wants and needs of modern-day workers. It is in a quandary as to how to win them back. No law or government intervention can correct these very serious deficiencies. Friends of the unions in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in Lansing might make a difference in the short run, but the structural weaknesses of unions are likely to doom them in the end, unless these fundamental problems are addressed and corrected.

For example, early in this century, government unemployment and disability insurance did not exist, so unions provided them. Employers did not extend health and life insurance to workers, so unions did. Today, it is still true that unions must find the right "niche" and provide some positive benefit to employees and potential members that is not being provided by someone else. Unions must learn again to earn the support of their members through effective representation.

At the same time, the labor movement should focus on other pressing issues, such as cleaning its own house and ridding itself of corrupt leaders who tarnish honest and hard-working union supporters. Labor unions should also abandon the outmoded adversarial model of labor relations and instead study ways in which they can co-exist with management in the modern workplace and cooperatively solve problems in a way that promotes free enterprise. Unions should cease the harassment tactics against business; the goal for them should be winning back the hearts, minds, and loyalties of workers, not destroying the businesses that employ them.

Union leaders themselves were once leery of laws that mandated membership in their organizations. Samuel Gompers, the father of the American labor movement, warned workers that "compulsory systems" were not only impractical, but also represented a menace to their rights, welfare, and liberty. He was right: A movement that holds compulsion as its main operating principle cannot long endure in a free society marked by a rapidly changing economic and social climate.