In the 1950s, one out of every three employed Americans belonged to a union. Now it's fewer than one out of six -- and in the private sector, fewer than one out of 10. That enormous erosion of membership and power has happened because of changes deep in the economy and is the background to the forced resignation last summer of Lane Kirkland as president of the AFL-CIO and the election this week of John J. Sweeney to succeed him.
One great contribution of the AFL-CIO under Mr. Kirkland and Thomas R. Donahue, whom Mr. Sweeney defeated, was its valiant work in behalf of human rights here and around the world. But the collapse of the Soviet empire seemed to diminish the political importance of the unions' work abroad, and for some years the great issue within the labor movement has been its shrinking base in this country.
Mr. Sweeney promises to invest much new money and energy in organizing. He says that he's prepared to use a kind of abrasive and confrontational tactic that the labor movement hasn't often employed in recent decades. Here in Washington Mr. Sweeney and his Service Employees International Union are known for their Justice for Janitors campaign, which, for example, blocked the Roosevelt Bridge during rush hour one morning last month to protest the impending cuts in the city budget. It's open to question whether that style of advocacy is going to win unions much sympathy.
But some of Mr. Sweeney's achievements are notable. Under his leadership, over the past 15 years his Service Employees Union has nearly doubled its size. That violates all of the common wisdom about the future of labor unions, for his members are precisely the people -- not highly skilled, working for low wages in the service sector -- who are said to be most difficult to reach.
Organized labor may now have a historic opportunity before it, although it similarly violates the common wisdom even to hint it. Waves of layoffs and corporate downsizings have persuaded a lot of middle-class workers that they are more vulnerable than they thought, and the stagnation of middle-class wages is generating a rising uneasiness and resentment. At a time when politics is swinging toward reduced responsibilities for government and leaving more decisions to markets, there may turn out to be a new appeal in the idea of collective action to preserve some balance in the market for labor.
Whether anything like that actually happens will depend on unions' ability to work with a generation of young Americans who are better educated than their parents and much more skeptical about large organizations. Mr. Swee\ney's job is not to lead the labor movement back to the glory days of the 1950s but to address the questions of anxious people who are badly shaken by the transformation of the companies that employ them.