Unions got a rare bit of good news the other day when a new Gallup poll showed 61% of Americans approve of unions--their best rating in 21 years.
But public opinion is fickle, and the unions' improved rating doesn't mean that increasing numbers of workers are joining them.
Tough corporate management continues to ride high in most labor disputes. Membership remains a feeble 17% of the work force. And Michael S. Dukakis, the man labor hopes will end eight years of anti-union action by the Reagan-Bush Administration, is lagging in the polls.
Nevertheless, while there are no meaningful signs yet that labor's improved public opinion rating is leading to its rejuvenation, unions are pressing ahead with an increasing number of imaginative, non-traditional programs.
And those programs just might breathe new life into the labor movement that the Gallup poll said this month has the disapproval of only 25% of the public, the lowest negative rating since 1967.
The AFL-CIO has started a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to polish its image and is putting on public demonstrations in support of striking workers with its "Jobs With Justice" campaign.
But probably longer lasting are its innovative service programs, some of which have been operating for years, such as the union-owned Union Labor Life Insurance Co. and pension fund investments in unionized construction jobs.
Major new programs started only in the past year or so: MasterCards with low interest rates, free legal assistance, insurance, discounts on travel and "associate memberships" that provide non-union workers with some labor federation services, and, of course, pro-union literature.
And even more programs are just coming on line: a nationwide discount mail order catalogue for a wide variety of products, a mail order pharmacy, life and car insurance, dental and visual care, and health insurance for strikers.
Most of the services are promoted by the AFL-CIO Union Privilege Benefit Programs, headed by Ray Denison, who sees great opportunities for the new consumer-oriented role he and others are developing for the labor movement.
The new benefit program began after an unprecedented report by federation officers who, finally, correctly blamed unions themselves for many of their failures. Until then, all of labor's ills were blamed on its enemies.
The basic idea of the new programs is that unions can help revitalize themselves by offering both union and non-union workers more than assistance in winning better wages and working conditions, although that must still be their primary function.
Denison says more than 650 lawyers are in the Union Privilege Legal Service, which is larger than all other legal plans in the country combined. It is available to about 10 million members of 51 unions and their families.
It is a pretty good deal in our litigious society. Members get a free consultation with an attorney, who also helps them write letters dealing with their legal controversies or draws up simple legal documents.
If more work is needed, members get a 30% discount off the normal fees charged by participating lawyers.
The unions' low-interest MasterCard is already used by 1.3 million members. About 30,000 members use the unions' extensive travel service.
One unusual and successful program is aimed at the millions of illegal aliens trying to qualify for amnesty under the new federal immigration law.
The program was started last year by the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, and federation Executive Secretary William R. Robertson says more than 10,000 immigrants have already been counseled by the union's Immigrant Assistant Project.
Nearly 5,000 of those have had their amnesty applications processed by the immigration service, but most will need additional help to complete the process. So in a few weeks the unions will offer English as a second language, job training and more legal representation as the immigrants proceed toward their final amnesty status.
In return--in addition to some satisfaction gained by helping others--the unions expect to recruit new members from appreciative immigrants.
Already, about 1,000 immigrants going through the program have become members of the newly created California Immigrant Workers Assn. They are the only union members in the country who are directly affiliated with the national AFL-CIO. The rest of the federation's 14 million members are linked to it as members of one of the 91 AFL-CIO affiliated unions.
For dues of $20 a year, the immigrants get most of the special discount services offered to regular members and other associate members, and other special services such as job training.
The negative for the unions in the immigrant aid project is that some of their actions may undercut the wages and benefits for their own, regular members.
For instance, the unions have joined some other groups trying to stop efforts by the immigration service to prevent employers, particularly in construction, from hiring illegal aliens who gather daily on street corners in Southern California.
Many illegals, most of whom are not even eligible for amnesty, are still being picked up regularly by contractors and paid $5 an hour, with no health insurance or any other fringe benefits.
If that kind of continuing exploitation of illegal aliens can be curbed by immigration officers, those employers would have to hire legalized aliens and American citizens, including union members who make $15 an hour or more.
But the anomalous position of unions fighting the immigration service enforcement of the law to curb the flow of illegal aliens seems to be the only serious flaw in their otherwise valuable Los Angeles project to help immigrants.
Perhaps in time, with a friend in the White House, their immigration project and their other innovative programs, the American labor movement might start moving once again.
Adversarial Tone Cast on Food Workers Talks
Traditional adversarial-style bargaining has started for new contracts between the Southern California retail food industry and two unions representing about 25,000 meat cutters and truckers.
Anthony Verdream, who hoped to bring a more a cooperative relationship between unions and management in the industry, lasted less than a month as president of the Food Employers Council.
He was ousted last May and is just now settling his accounts with the council. Some sources say he will be paid the $200,000 salary he would have received for a year's service, plus an undisclosed additional sum.
Verdream, who has a reputation as a peacemaker between labor and management, may not have easily resolved the many problems facing the industry and its workers in the wake of the sweeping changes brought about by the recent rash of mergers and acquisitions of so many supermarket chains.
But, with or without Verdream, it is unfortunate that the industry and unions representing its workers are back at the same old stand, each side trying to take advantage of a presumed weakness in the other.
Thousands of jobs are at stake, and workers, through their unions, should have a meaningful voice in resolving fundamental industry problems stemming from the action of those food industry financial manipulations. The manipulators' only concern is making large profits, regardless of the damage they do to the jobs of workers or the prices paid by consumers.
Instead of helping to deal with industry questions that profoundly affect their jobs and their future, the workers are once again limited mostly to negotiating the amount of their wages and benefits.
Joseph McLaughlin, president of the Food Employers Council and an experienced practitioner of the old-fashioned adversarial system, says the supermarkets and unions are "not on the warpath against one another." While there are difficult problems to negotiate, he thinks they can be settled without a strike or lockout.
Far better, though, would have been for representatives of management, the United Food & Commercial Workers and the Teamsters to meet as close allies, facing their problems cooperatively rather than as rivals seeing which side can best the other across the bargaining table.