WASHINGTON – Labor Day finds organized labor between setback and opportunity.
Union membership is sliding. Thousands of jobs have disappeared because of the faltering economy. The Bush administration has crippled labor's agenda on such issues as workplace safety regulations and union partnerships with government.
Labor officials think aggressive campaigns on issues such as immigration, globalization, trade, workers' rights and the minimum wage could help drive the resurgence they have sought unsuccessfully for years now.
"Unions have more relevance than ever," said Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. "They're playing an ever increasing role in national elections and in directing the debate on the way this country is going."
Hoffa and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney face re-election this year.
Union membership has declined or remained stagnant as the work force has grown.
The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent, the lowest in six decades, according to the Labor Department. Union officials have blamed a decline in heavily unionized industries coupled with job growth in nonunion parts of the economy.
It is now or never for unions to raise their numbers, said Lawrence Lorber, deputy assistant labor secretary under President Ford.
Today's economic uncertainty holds opportunity for labor. An Associated Press poll last week showed that Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, have grown more sympathetic to unions in labor-business disputes over the past couple of years.
"If people are uncertain, that is when unions get the best opportunity to make their presence felt," said Lorber, a labor lawyer in Washington.
Several unions have overcome some of the political obstacles posed by the administration by joining forces with Republicans.
The promise of new jobs prompted the Teamsters and other unions to back President Bush's plan to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling despite opposition from labor's traditional Democratic and environmental allies. The coalition even managed to carry along a reluctant AFL-CIO, which had hoped to stay on the sidelines.
A week ago, Bush visited a Pennsylvania steel mill, the first president in 30 years to do so. On Monday, he planned to talk to carpenters in Wisconsin and attends a Teamsters picnic in Michigan.
At the mill, he was welcomed by the United Steelworkers of America, which praised the president for launching an investigation of foreign steel imports -- something the union did not get from the Clinton administration.
Among other big issues that unions are tackling:
--Immigration. The AFL-CIO, eager to reverse declining membership, last year abandoned its stance that immigrants were a threat to American jobs and started reaching out to them. Unions -- including Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, Service Employees International Union and United Farm Workers -- are pressing for legalization of illegal immigrants. Their campaign heats up this week during Bush's meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox.
--Trade. Unions have generated advertising and thousands of phone calls, letters and e-mail messages to Congress against giving Bush increased trade authority. The effort will be stepped up this week with bus tours to factories in Alabama and California, and later in Indiana and Texas.
--Mexican trucks. Bush wants unlimited access for Mexican trucks throughout the United States beginning Jan. 1. The Teamsters and the AFL-CIO have been running ads opposing an open border. The fight moves next to the House.
• Ergonomics. Unions are awaiting a decision this month by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao about whether she will pursue a new regulation or a voluntary approach to reduce workplace injuries. Earlier this year, Congress repealed Clinton-era regulations that unions fought to keep.
• Eugene Scalia: Labor opposes the nomination of Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to be the Labor Department's top lawyer. They cite his opposition to the repealed workplace regulations as well as other views. His Senate confirmation hearing is Sept. 20.
• Right to Work: Unions have sent dozens of workers to Oklahoma to help in the fight a ban on labor contracts that require all workers of a particular company to pay union dues or their equivalent. Oklahoma voters will vote in a referendum on the issue Sept. 25.
• Nissan: The United Automobile Workers are seeking an organization vote among workers at a Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn. -- the first such election at a foreign-owned auto plant in a dozen years.
• Minimum wage: With the Senate in Democratic hands, there are plans to take up a bill this fall to raise the $5.15 minimum wage.