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Collection

Labor

Background

Stories pertaining to the modern labor movement and issues facing members of the global labor workforce. In the late 20th century, a major challenge to the American labor movement was the declining size of the American industrial base, particularly traditional industries such as steel and heavy machinery. In some instances, lower labor costs have helped foreign companies in such fields as automobiles and electronics to gain larger shares of the American market. Many large U.S. factories have closed, and large numbers of union members have lost their jobs.

Automation is a continuing challenge. Many older factories have been introducing automatic machinery to perform tasks previously done by workers. This is done mainly to increase productivity, in response to the challenge of foreign competition. But in some cases it has meant the elimination of jobs. In response, unions have sought a variety of measures to protect jobs and incomes, including free retraining and shorter work-weeks to share the available work among employees. Nevertheless, the shrinking of the traditional American industrial base was a powerful blow from which the labor movement has yet fully to recover. At the same time, the percentage of workers who belong to unions has also declined. Although more than one-third of employed people were members of unions in 1945, only about 16 percent were in the late 1980s.

A major criticism of the labor movement has been that its traditional demand for higher wages and better working conditions—even during periods of inflation—adds to still further inflation, and damages productivity in American industry. In the recession of the early 1980s, however, there were increasing examples of union willingness to forgo wage increases in favor of employment security and enhanced company competitiveness. In addition, labor proponents argue that most recent increases in wages are designed just to keep up with the cost of living, not to make substantial gains in real standards.

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