UNIONS in the United States are getting back on their feet. After eight years of decline, the labor movement is entering a period of stability. Membership losses have all but disappeared. And contract concessions are being replaced with stronger calls for higher wages and benefits.
``I think we are going to see unions becoming a lot more aggressive and sophisticated at the bargaining table,'' says Thomas Kochan, industrial relations professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
``Bargaining in 1989 is going to be on the basis of recovery,'' adds economist Audrey Freedman at the Conference Board, a business research organization in New York City, ``not in employment, but a recovery that will allow the unions to ask for a share in what looks like security in the industries.''
This new stability does not promise rapid gains in wages or membership, union officials say.
``It [membership] has improved, but not anywhere near where it was,'' says John Zalusky, head of the AFL-CIO's wages and industrial relations office. ``I don't think we will recover what we lost for quite some time.''
Union-membership figures tell the story. Between 1979 and 1985, unions lost 4 million members. Losses have been minimal since then - fewer than 85,000 from 1985 to 1987. And 1988 figures could show a slight upturn. Yet, because the number of nonunion jobs is growing so rapidly, organized labor's share of the work force may not increase.
BUT the current situation represents a kind of stability, much of it stemming from the rebound in the unionized manufacturing industry. The turnaround in steel, for example, has had a dramatic impact on the United Steelworkers of America.
From 1982 to 1986, the nation's 25 largest steelmakers lost nearly $12 billion, and the union's active membership dropped by a quarter, reflecting the shrinking and restructuring of the steel industry during that time. In 1987, membership sunk to a new low of 625,000, although by then steelmakers had started to post profits. Finally, last year union ranks increased for the first time in this decade, to 636,000.
This stability has spilled over into the bargaining area. Union contracts expire this year at six major steel companies. Two of them are in bankruptcy, but the other four have made healthy profits. ``Steel companies are making phenomenal amounts of money,'' union spokesman Dick Fontana says. ``We are going to be looking at all of that.''
The Steelworkers wage-policy committee, which sets bargaining goals, recently announced that profit-sharing was not an acceptable substitute for wage increases.
In fact, many unionized companies will be under increasing pressure to raise wages and benefits because these have not kept pace with those in the nonunion sector since 1983.
From 1984 to 1987, nonunion compensation averaged 4.3 percent a year compared with only 3.0 percent for union workers. Big labor has done better during the first nine months of 1988, equaling the 4.5 percent increase of nonunion workers. In 1989, union workers will likely match that 4.5 percent increase, according to the consensus of an outlook panel of the Conference Board.
But there will be limits on how much trade unions can push for.
``I think you will continue to see restraint exercised,'' says Peter Lunnie, director of employee relations for the National Association of Manufacturers.
``We have seen the start of a turnaround,'' adds Thomas O'Grady, president of Integrated Automotive Resources, a consulting firm. But the danger is that unions will push for wage hikes that are too high, making US manufacturers once again uncompetitive with foreign firms, he says.