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The new year has brought a sharp increase in labor conflict in America.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, public employee unions are battling Republicans in the legislature and the governor’s office.

In Providence, R.I., the city has fired nearly 2,000 union teachers.

Then there’s the NFL, where owners and players are at an impasse as the midnight deadline for negotiations nears — meaning even ESPN is on the labor beat.

Each of the conflicts has a different set of issues and different circumstances. But they also highlight how the face of organized labor in the U.S. has changed.

Unions remain a major player in American politics, pouring money and manpower into elections and other public policy debates. But labor’s numbers have been shrinking for decades. Now, only about 12 percent of the U.S. workforce belongs to a union. That compares with about 20 percent in the early 1980s.

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein at the University of California, Santa Barbara describes what the typical unionized worker in America looked like 50 years ago:

“It would be a blue-collar male working in a factory. The auto union had a million and a half members. The steelworkers had a million. Also Teamsters, truck drivers — a couple million workers in that union. So it would be a male, 45-year-old who worked with his hands.”

In those days, before foreign competition changed everything for the U.S. car companies, labor/management relations were perpetually rocky.

In an interview with NPR in 1988, Orville Spencer, then a United Auto Workers local president in Michigan, described that relationship.

“You’d lose a lot of sleep on how bad the company put the screws to you during your working-hour shifts,” Spencer said. “Next night, I’d lose sleep laying there giggling on how bad I put it to them.”

But pressured by foreign competition, the UAW and the car companies made a kind of peace. Both sides came to realize the shared stakes.

“Nobody in the world can quarrel with the quality and results of Ford,” said UAW President Bob King, in a recent interview with Detroit station WDET. “That is driven as much by the UAW as it is by Ford, because it’s a strong partnership. Because of our strong respect, we’ve done it together.”

But these days, the UAW is a much smaller organization. And in 2011, the total number of workers in the public sector who belong to a union is now greater than the number of members in private sector unions.

So remember that typical union member of a half-century ago? Here’s how Lichtenstein describes today’s version:

“It would be a hospital technician or nurse or a home health care worker or a schoolteacher or a female public employee of some sort.”

Which brings us to those big union protests in Wisconsin, which have been going on for more than two weeks now.

Among the most prominent voices in Wisconsin is the teachers union. The National Education Association, with more than 3 million members, is now the largest union in the country, having surpassed the Teamsters more than a decade ago.

Wisconsin political analyst Jeff Mayers of WisPolitics.com says the teachers union is seen there as “the most powerful white-collar union, the most powerful public employees’ union.”

“I think the people on the conservative side would call them a worthy opponent,” he adds. “But they’re often vilified by conservatives and Republicans because they play such a big role in elections.”

It’s that clout that has helped the unions turn so many people out in ongoing protests. But it is also the thing that makes them an important target for conservative politicians.

In the short run, the GOP attack on bargaining rights may cause a backlash in the 2012 elections. But if the Republican legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere do succeed in curtailing collective bargaining rights, unions will be weakened for many years to come.