Is organized labor's future in the United States at stake in the 1980 election? Leaders of more than 100 unions that support President Carter say "yes." But when political rhetoric and exaggerations are stripped from the issues, most union leaders and a majority of their members do not think the outcome of the vote for the White House would threaten the union movement.
But an underlying issue in the 1980 campaign, in labor's view, is the possible influence of the emergent New Right on government policies if Ronald Reagan is elected. The New Right is a powerful coalition of business and conservative forces that, through political action committees, is spending millions of dollars on what is the most important face-off ever with labor.
Labor fears that a GOP victory, with more Republicans in Congress, would allow business and corporate leaders from the New Right to mastermind the economy and influence decisions on policies covering collective bargaining, labor-law reform, union shop contracts, job safety and health, prevailing wage rates, minimum wage changes, better health care, minimum wage changes, better health care, full employment, and public employee unionism. These are basic issues for labor in 1980.
Mr. Reagan once toyed with the idea of bringing labor unions further under the nation's anti-trust laws by, among other things, barring unions from industrywide bargaining. The AFL-CIO says this could weaken every union in the country. Mr. Carter says anti-trust laws were never intended to apply to unions , and Reagan says he also opposes such a restrint on bargaining -- a goal of many in the New Right.
Carter, in line with labor thinking, supports strong enforcement of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Reagan has dropped his original opposition to the act as it now is on statute books but still favors reform of OSHA, a position labor says would destroy its effectiveness. There is strong sentiment in the New Right to repeal or modify OSHA drastically to relieve business of its high costs and interference with management.
Although Georgia had a right-to-work law barring the union shop when he was governor, Carter tells labor he would now oppose a right-to-work law and that he would sign legislation to repeal existing state laws. Reagan's position is more equivocal.
Both candidates have programs for turning the economy around. Carter won labor support by advancing plans for "revitalization" of America's industrial base after consulting with the AFL-CIO. Labor also likes Carter's tax proposals better than Reagan's -- which, it contends, would benefit business and industry more than workers -- and it favors the President's support for a full-employment policy with a commitment to public jobs for the unemployed. Reagan opposes the creation of public-sector jobs.
Carter is for regular increases in the minimum wage as costs go up; Reagan has proposed a lower rate structure for youth jobs to put more of the young to work. Labor opposes such a change, arguing that it would take away jobs from adults. Unions also are wary of the Republican candidate's stand on the food stamp program and on his proposals for tougher requirements for unemployment compensation.
Unions have generally campaigned against Reagan with charges that his election would reverse decades of social progress. However, an AFL-CIO poll in late summer showed that Reagan's conservative views appealed to most union members.
The poll concluded that issues advanced by "right wing" politicians "appear to ring responsive notes in somewhat more than one-half of union members." It also noted that most members do not think it makes any difference which party is in control of Congress and the White House when it comes to union-restricting legislation.