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Spare Change For Labor BY DEBORAH LIMERBECK Washington MAYBE WHEN the movie Hoffa is released later this year labor will finally earn its rightful place next to the mob that is, the mob we all loved and admired in the Godfather series. Unlike that film-blanche Matewan, Hoffa will probably be longer on wardrobe than sanctity. Wherever the old guy might be now, in the movie I’ll bet he’ll be resplendent in his double breasted suits, not to mention a little humorous, and perhaps amorous in a Teamster sort of way. I’ll bet he’ll eat with a napkin tied around his neck, in one of those retro restaurants more suited to movies than memories. He may even turn out to have had a tender side, being kind to animals and small children. Whatever the case, Hoffa should at least start people talking about labor, which would be a change. Let’s face it, these days more people can name a Wall Street tycoon than a labor leader. If that is ever going to change, organized labor will have to do the changing. Sometime over the past 30, maybe only the past 20 years, labor sank into the quagmire of disrepute. It’s no easy task to find the exact reason. There is a “global economy” argument, the “corruption within labor’s ranks” plank, the failed air traffic controllers strike, and everybody’s favorite culprit Congress. What is clear is that if there is to be a new dawn for labor unions, it will not be a reflection of past glories. Presidential hopeful Gov. Bill Clinton may be winning the support of labor’s leaders, but on labor issues, the difference between Democrat Clinton and President George Bush is better measured in inches than yards. According to Gary Burtless, senior fellow with the liberal Brookings Institution in Washington, if unions want to survive they will have to abdicate their adversarial role and learn to praise business rather than trying to bury it. “The long-term decline of the influence of labor unions is due to the failure of unions to change their objectives,” he said. What they should try to figure out, Burtless said, is “How can we as representatives of workers spur our employees to make us more competitive.” It is not just union workers who are struggling on the job front. Nationwide unemployment stands at 7.7 percent, meaning some 9.8 million people are out of work. The question is how to respond to this crisis. President George Bush seems to have adopted a laissez-faire approach to employment. During his nomination speech, he wisely stayed away from the jobs issue, merely tipping his hat to the unemployed with his acknowledgment of “kitchen-table” anxi Deborah Lutterbeck, a journalist living in New York, is a regular contributor to these pages. ety. That anxiety is nothing new to the average union worker. If you listen to Gerald McEntee, the International President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees, it is the Republican economic prescriptions that weakened the knees of the labor movement. During the 1980s, when the richest people in the country, those in the top 1 percent, witnessed a 75 percent growth in their after-tax income, those in the middle class watched their earnings decline. McEntee recently told a Congressional panel that the, “real income of a male high school graduate with five years work experience is more than 20 percent below where that same type of person’s income was in 1979. This is not the dropout or the kid that takes drugs. This is the kid that did what he was supposed to do -get a diploma and get a job -and yet, the payback for all that hard work has been a 20 percent decline in real income.” Overall wages similarly eroded, with real income dropping between 8 percent and 9 percent over the past decade. It is this loss of income that has lead to calls for tax fairness, which is an issue for the middle class whether they are union employed or not. However, some labor leaders, like Jack Sheinkman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, think the tax structure is only part of the problem. “Economists estimate that fully 80 percent of the redistribution of income from the lower 70 percent to the upper 10 percent occurred before taxes. That tells us that the real problem is in the jobs,” Sheinkman told the Senate Banking Committee. In other words, there is no longer much of a high-wage backbone providing support to the economy. The statistics bear this out. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1991 about 16.1 percent of the U.S. work force belonged to a union, down from the peak in 1953, when 25.5 percent were union members. The average weekly wage for a union worker last year was $526.00, compared with $430.00 for a nonunion worker. But the real threat is still overseas. “How do we compete in a world of over five billion people, most of them willing to work for a lot less than we are, without cutting our wages and living standards?” Sheinkman asked. His theory is that you get what you pay for. “If you’re paying someone $15.00 and hour, you’re going to make sure you use that person effectively. If you’re paying them $5.00 an hour, productivity is not so important.” In addition to higher pay scales, there of course must be more job opportunities. This is why labor has been friendly to Clinton, despite the fact that he is governor of a “right to work state.” While the Clinton campaign has not released the details of the $150 billion infrastructure package he proposed, everyone knows someone out there will have money to build something with it. And not a minute too. soon, according to Lynn Williams, International President of the United Steelworkers of America. Williams said such investment would, “address the vast, unmet needs in infrastructure repairs and improvements that have been allowed to build up over the last 12 years, as yet another legacy to the ReaganBush Administration. During this period, spending on infrastructure has fallen from 5 percent of federal spending to less than 2.5 percent.” A $150 billion program would defmitely lead to jobs. The Department of Transportation projects that every $1 billion spent on infrastructure creates between 30,000 and 50,000 new jobs. But it remains to be seen if those jobs will be the high-wage jobs the unions hope for, or even whether they will be union jobs. Clinton is not just talking about highways and bridges, he has plans for high-speed rail lines, smart highways, and fiber optic networks and it is not clear if the people to work on these types of projects will be union members. And it might finally be time for unions to consider that in the United States political system, you get what you pay for. According to Common Cause, the publicinterest watch dog group, from 1983 until 1988 business campaign contributions to U.S. senators were more than four times larger than labor contributions. During that period Texs Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen collected some $1.8 million from business interests, compared to about $175,000 from labor. The contrast was even starker with Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, who collected some $1.6 million from business interests and only $25,000 from labor. Such figures take some of the mystery out of why labor doesn’t get a fair shake in Congress. What those contributions buy is normally called access. According to Mark Melcher, political economist with Prudential Securities, “Depending upon the whim and the clout of their Congressional benefactors, corporate America receives specific tax breaks, protection from foreign competition, direct federal subsidies, government programs that vastly increase the size of certain markets, below-market interest rates, exemptions from certain laws or regulations, rights to benefit commercially from government-financed R&D, and the purchase of government assets at fire-sale prices.” Nice work if you can get it. Part of the problem is that even when Congress seems to be taking aim at fat cats, it ends up hitting labor. For example, in 1990, 22 SEPTEMBER 4, 1992