NEW YORK, MAR. 31, 2001 ( With the old manufacturing-based economy long dead in Western countries, trade union numbers have declined in recent years. Apart from public sector employees, many areas are now virtually union-free.

Last year in the United States the percentage of the work force belonging to a union declined to 13.5%, the lowest level since the government started collecting this information in 1983. The unions´ share of private-sector workers fell to a record low of 9% last year from 9.5% the year before, while its share of government workers inched up to 37.5% from 37.3%, the Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 19. The total number of union members slipped to 16.3 million from 16.5 million in 1999.

The decline comes as organized labor poured unprecedented amounts of human and financial resources into last year´s elections, only to see Republicans win control of the White House and keep control of both houses of Congress.

In Europe, the Financial Times reported March 9, some are asking if trade unions are heading for extinction. This fear comes from no less than the European Trade Union Confederation, which recently published a 713-page report on the issue. The study concluded that unions in most Western European countries are failing to modernize and to restructure themselves sufficiently in order to survive in a changing economy.

In Germany, union representatives can be found in only 6% of workplaces and a third of the country´s trade union members are either retired or unemployed. In France, the study says, the unions are "in the throes of a crisis deeper than ever before," which is "moral" and "affects the very foundations of their legitimacy." In Spain, unions "will be increasingly submerged in civil society" alongside "ecologists, feminists, pacifists and anti-racists."

Only in the Nordic countries is the position less desperate. Most workers in the region are union members, and unions are partners in the development of social market models.

One attempt made by unions in Germany to adapt to changing circumstances is the recent merger of five service-sector unions. The Financial Times reported March 20 the creation of the Ver.di, a united services union, which brings together nearly 3 million members from 1,000 different professions, including musicians, trash men, journalists, bankers and stewardesses.

Most independent analysts agreed that the merger was not "born out of strength." Professor Berndt Keller, a trade union expert at the University of Konstanz, pointed toward unions´ rapidly deteriorating finances as perhaps the most important reason for a merger. "All the Ver.di unions, with the possible exception of the DAG [the white-collar union], are in financial difficulties due to their loss of membership," he said.

Some see the decline of unions as positive. This is often tied up with political opinions, since unions often are allied with political parties: in Britain and Australia with the Labor Party, in the United States with the Democrats, and in continental Europe with the left-of-center parties. Others oppose unions on economic grounds, arguing that they obstruct businesses from being able to adapt to changing circumstances.

Protection still lacking

The decline of unions, however, doesn´t signal a golden age for employees. Even in the so-called new economy, problems still exist. For example, while phone-call centers have created up to 400,000 jobs in Britain, work conditions are often very difficult, the Independent reported Feb. 25.

The newspaper told of "Tom," who went straight from school to a local call center. While he was glad to find a job, Tom observed that "I´m working 12 hours straight, five days a week, answering call after call. It´s sales support, and I´m getting lots of customer complaints to deal with."

Some employees in call centers are forced to go into work to report in sick, instead of being able to phone in, the Independent reported. In some centers, workers have to put their hands up to go to the lavatory -- and then are monitored for how long they spend there.

Another source of problems is the move to a greater use of part-timers in recent years. In many cases part-timers don´t receive holidays or sick pay, and it is more difficult for them to obtain a mortgage from a bank.

Important principles

How should workers be treated? In his encyclical "Laborem Exercens" John Paul II starts by putting work into a supernatural context. Work is not something incidental, but "a fundamental dimension of man´s existence on earth" (No. 4). Through our work, affirmed the Pope, we are reflecting our condition as God´s image by fulfilling the instruction given in the Book of Genesis to subdue the earth.

John Paul II speaks of a "Gospel of work," which is opposed to a materialistic conception whereby workers are considered merely as some kind of productive tool. Workers should be considered as the subject of work and as "its true creator and maker" (No. 7).

As a consequence, labor should have priority over natural resources and the processes of economic production. This is so even when the work being performed is unskilled. John Paul II explains that even the most perfect collection of instruments is subordinate to human labor (No. 12). He insists on "the principle of the primacy of person over things" (No. 13).

The priority of the human factor is more evident in the modern economy, the Pope noted in his later encyclical "Centesimus Annus." At one time, land was the principal source of wealth, but nowadays "the role of human work is becoming increasingly important as the productive factor both of nonmaterial and of material wealth" (No. 31).

While the Church´s social teaching acknowledges the positive role of economic considerations in deciding how to run a business, making a profit is not the only factor to take into consideration. "It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people -- who make up the firm´s most valuable asset -- to be humiliated and their dignity offended" (No. 35).

Where, then, does this leave trade unions? Their traditional role as the guardians of workers´ rights could disappear. Or they could be forced to radically change their present structures and methods. They may even have to revise their fixed alliances to a single political party, perhaps something redundant in an age when the economic policies of the different groupings are increasingly similar and when the socioeconomic divisions of parties are no longer as clear as in past decades.

"Man is the source, the focus and the end of all economic and social life," stated the Second Vatican Council document "Gaudium et Spes," No. 63. How to safeguard this principle is open to debate. As the circumstances differ from place to place, so also will the solutions as to how workers should be treated. But the principle remains unchanged.