The Obsolescent Unions
AMERICAN UNIONISM, thirty years after the New Deal, is in the grip of two contradictory developments. One of these is a new surge of social and economic inventiveness in adapting collective bargaining to the dizzying requirements of rapid technological change. The other is a conjunction of challenges so inimical in their total effect to the traditional structure of our unions, that they presage nothing less than the eventual disappearance of unions as we know them. The historians of American institutions may record this as a period in which the labor movement was innovating itself into the grave.
On the face of it, labor has never seemed stronger-nor more likely to stay strong. Total membership, to take the most obvious measure, is as high as it has ever been, maintaining a level of slightly over 18 million in most of the period since World War II. True, membership is not growing; and the increase in the number of civilian workers-now exceeding 70 million-has reduced the unions’ percentage of the total labor force. Nevertheless, inroads into union strength made by technological innovation in such fields as mining and manufacturing have thus far been counterbalanced by sufficient expansion in other fields to keep the numerical level from going down.
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