Dukakis Could Gain if Unionism Becomes Election Issue

The word union was not used once in the recent presidential debate by Michael S. Dukakis, George Bush or any of the reporters questioning them.

The word is almost never used in campaign speeches by Dukakis, the man that unions are working ardently to put into the White House.

Yet, although their strength is diminished and their ill-wishers include the formidable Reagan-Bush Administration, unions are still a powerful force that must be reckoned with in the nation’s political and economic life. And most of their goals have broad popular support.

The Democratic candidate knows that to win he needs a heavy vote from union members and their families. But Dukakis is not making the kind of open appeal to union workers that he is wisely beginning to make to the black community with a special $3-million advertising campaign.


Paul Jensen, national political director for Dukakis, explains that the governor does stress “issues of deep concern to middle-class American workers and that includes union members. We are certainly not walking away from them.”

But it sometimes seems as though Dukakis worries that “Pit Bull” Bush, as the vice president has labeled himself, might pretend to be infuriated if unions become prominent in the campaign. The tactic seems to help Bush when he snaps at that “L” word, liberal.

However, it is doubtful that Bush would get much, if any, political mileage out of attacking unions and their goals. Neither Reagan nor Bush tried it in 1980 or 1984.

Maybe the governor almost never mentions the word unions because he feels that union leaders already know he is so in tune with them and most of their goals that he doesn’t need to make references to unions to attract union members’ votes.


Dukakis might also worry that bringing up union issues would only add a distraction to the campaign--and not be particularly newsworthy anyway.

True, Dukakis got very little media attention when he warmly and publicly accepted the strong endorsement of the 14.5-million-member AFL-CIO in August. But that support was considered a certainty, so it wasn’t big news.

However, unions and their goals might turn out to be very newsworthy and useful to Dukakis if they become a part of his campaign and are included as subjects in the next Dukakis-Bush debate.

For instance, why not ask the candidates in the next debate about the recent death by Republican filibuster of a bill to increase the federal minimum wage of $3.35 an hour? The ridiculously low minimum hasn’t been raised since the Reagan-Bush team moved into the White House.

Dukakis supports an increase, and Bush claims he does, too. But it might be interesting to hear Bush explain why he didn’t oppose the GOP filibuster that killed the increase.

Bush also should be asked to explain how low-wage workers could possibly be helped by his vague offer to back some kind of minimum wage hike and then only if employers are allowed to hire young workers for less than the minimum.

And the debaters shouldn’t ignore the sad fact that last year only 31.5% of America’s unemployed workers actually received unemployment benefits. That was the lowest percentage in the history of the system, which was adopted in 1935 as part of the Social Security program to help ease the economic suffering caused by the loss of a job.

Would either man try to liberalize the jobless benefit eligibility rules that have become increasingly rigid and unfair during the Reagan-Bush years?


The questions might bring up the “U” word since unions have been the primary force fighting to get more reasonable unemployment eligibility rules and increases in the woefully inadequate benefits, but Dukakis should take that negligible risk.

It would be interesting, too, to hear the candidates discuss the regulations they would adopt to enforce the so-called plant closure bill, passed recently despite President Reagan’s protests. The law requires many employers to give 60 days’ notice to workers and their communities when a plant is to be closed or when there is to be a massive layoff.

Lax enforcement of the measure, a law that Bush had opposed, would render it almost useless, since it is already weak because of the giant loopholes unions had to accept to get it passed. Strong enforcement and tough administrative regulations might at least narrow those loopholes and make the law more meaningful.

And why not ask the candidates about another major union-backed proposal: a requirement that companies provide at least unpaid maternity or paternity leave when a child is born and time off when a child or one’s elderly parents are ill.

Most corporations oppose those family-oriented measures, as does Bush, arguing indignantly that such benefits cost money and, therefore, decisions about them should be left to corporate executives.

What is really needed is paid maternity and paternity leave because young couples most need their full incomes when a baby arrives. Unfortunately, even Dukakis, who is really a moderate on many issues, would probably oppose such company-paid leaves. But it would be instructive to hear the candidates discuss family life in these real-life terms.

The debaters ought to be asked about ways to improve federal labor laws passed by Congress in 1935 to encourage union organizing so that workers, united, would have a better chance to deal with their inherently more powerful employers.

Some modest efforts to reform labor laws were killed by another GOP filibuster in 1978. Reforms are still need in those inadequate laws, which are poorly enforced by the pro-management, Reagan-appointed members of the National Labor Relations Board.


There have been too many unasked labor-related questions to seriously expect them all to be debated in the short time before Election Day.

And a couple have been raised by Dukakis, such as ones about the plant closure bill and the Massachusetts law requiring employers to provide health insurance for workers.

But it would be a crying shame if at least a few more of the many crucial labor-oriented issues aren’t raised and debated by the candidates before Election Day.

Yanks Fare Poorly

Some fascinating facts about how labor costs figure in America’s international competitiveness will be published in a book being written by UCLA Prof. Daniel Mitchell, “Human Resource Management; an Economic Approach.”

It was once assumed that American companies suffered because labor costs in other countries were so much lower than they are here.

Maybe that was once a major factor in our competition with other developed countries, but it isn’t any longer because wages have risen in many of those countries while the value of the dollar has declined.

But more startling are Mitchell’s figures, compiled from data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that show, among other things, just how low wages are in underdeveloped countries compared to the United States.

In Mexico, for example, workers last year got just 12% of the earnings of workers in this country.

The picture is different in the developed countries. Swedish workers were paid 12% more, and West Germans received 25% more than their U.S. counterparts. And, except for Great Britain, the pay in other Western nations was close to the U.S. level.

The most dramatic change over the years has been in Japan, where workers were getting only 10% of the compensation Americans received in 1960 but 84% as of last year. Although that still would give Japanese employers a slight advantage in labor costs, that gap is nearly wiped out by shipping expenses once products are sold to the United States.


Total hourly compensation in the manufacturing sector as a percent of U.S. wage levels.

Industrialized Nations

1960 1970 1980 1987 U.S. 100% 100% 100% 100% Canada 80 83 90 89 Japan 10 24 57 84 France 31 41 92 92 W. Germany 32 56 125 125 Italy 24 42 82 92 Sweden 45 70 126 112 U.K. 32 36 74 67

Other Nations

1975 1980 1987 Brazil 14% 14% 11% Mexico 31 30 12 Hong Kong 12 15 16 S. Korea 5 10 13 Singapore 13 15 18 Taiwan 6 10 17