The economy is running away from organized labor.

If you don't believe it, consider these statistics from the AFL-CIO: The ratio of union workers to nonunion workers has dropped from 1 out of 3 when membership in labor unions hit its peak of 22 million in 1955 to 1 out of 7 today.

And this: Ninety percent of the federation's union members are concentrated in only eight of 15 sectors of the economy, with nearly 20 percent of the membership concentrated in the metropolitan areas surrounding New York City and Los Angeles.

So, as the "new" economy gives birth to whole new industries, unions have only managed to sign up one member for every 20 new jobs created. With the U.S. work force predicted to grow by 17.5 million jobs over the next six years, AFL-CIO member unions will have to organize 340,000 new members a year just to stay even at 13.9 percent of the work force.

These are frightening numbers for the leaders of the AFL-CIO as they gathered in Los Angeles this week for the federation's biennial convention, which started yesterday. They have a daunting task ahead as they seek to recover the strength and power of labor past.

"It speaks to the challenge," said Kirk Adams, the AFL-CIO's organizing director. "We have to look at ourselves and the economy in a different way."

Adams has been using the work force numbers to convince the federation's 68 member unions of the need to seek "economic density" as they push to organize new members, meaning that they concentrate on organizing most of the workers within one company or within one industry so they have more clout. Having 1 million members scattered in pockets of 10,000 or so gives the unions little leverage.

The Communications Workers of America has had some success with achieving density. It has targeted the wireless communications industry for organizing, following its stronghold in the majority of traditional telephone companies.

In last year's contract negotiations with AT&T Corp. and the regional Baby Bell telephone companies, the CWA demanded and won the right to an easy unionization process from all the companies where it represents the work force. The processes vary from "card check recognition" at SBC Communications Inc. to an expedited election at AT&T to automatic union recognition at all new facilities at Bell Atlantic.

As a result of what the union calls its "Bargaining for Organizing" campaign, the CWA already has signed up 5,000 wireless workers and is pushing for more as new technologies spread throughout the communications industry.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said labor has made progress in simply stemming membership losses in the four years since his election. "We're at the corner; we haven't turned it yet, but we're at the corner," he said. Last year, the AFL-CIO had a net gain of slightly more than 100,000 members, and so far this year the federation appears to have picked up more than 200,000 new members.

Successes include adding thousands of members in the airline industry, accelerating the pace of signing up medical doctors, winning a 30-year organizing campaign with Fieldcrest Cannon Inc. and signing up 5,000 textile workers, and doubling the number of colleges and universities with unions representing graduate assistants.

Even with these gains, many labor officials fear that much of labor's density--both in actual membership numbers and in industry unionization--is often in the wrong places for the new technology-driven service economy.

"The economy, in broad strokes, is moving away from us," said David Chu, director of the AFL-CIO's Center for Strategic Research. Chu notes that the faster-growing cities are where labor is getting weaker.

Of 30 cities surveyed by the federation researchers, the fastest-growing ones--Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Miami--have the least union density. Only Portland, Ore., Seattle and Sacramento have above-average growth and growing union density.

Sweeney points to the recent contract settlements in the aerospace and auto industries as examples of why density is important, noting that workers got signing bonuses, hikes in their base pay and significantly improved job security. But those contracts also underscore an economy racing away from labor's strongholds. The auto industry, for example, has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs since the start of the 1980s--80,000 at General Motors Corp. alone in the past 10 years--reducing the core work force at industry assembly plants to a comparative handful of well-paid, skilled workers.

Some in the labor movement compare what's happening in the auto industry to the decision by the United Mine Workers of America in 1950 to allow the coal-mining industry to use any automated equipment it wanted as long as the remaining miners were the highest-paid industrial workers in the world. The number of active UMWA members today is less than 30,000. They warn that it's a fate awaiting other unions unless they begin to organize in new areas.

In August, the AFL-CIO executive council took the first serious policy steps toward dealing with the problem of density, and now the leadership appears to be holding its breath to see if anyone will pay serious attention.

In an effort to channel labor's organizing energy, the AFL-CIO has set aside approximately $14 million and posted a sign-up sheet for unions that want financial help in running their organizing campaign. Unions must submit a plan for a strategic organizing campaign with a schedule for completion, and a special oversight committee must judge the chances of success before getting any money, other research or logistical aid.

The AFL-CIO leadership also has developed a policy on union jurisdictions designed to protect a union involved in a successful organizing campaign from rival unions seeking to horn in on any organizing success.

These seemingly common-sense rules for a labor movement under siege are not without controversy within the AFL-CIO. Union jurisdictional questions have never been easy, and they don't get any easier in a shrinking labor movement with scarce dues money.

Sweeney said the new policies adopted by the executive council in August are a key to labor's future organizing efforts. "We're trying to get them [member unions] to focus on opportunities in their major industries and to focus on where they have the resources," he said.

This week, the federation will ask its member unions to approve a major organizational restructuring of the field operations, giving the federation more power over state and local organizations. The proposal, which must be approved by the convention, would basically remove much of the independence of state AFL-CIOs and 600 local Central Labor Councils so that the national AFL-CIO leadership would have more power to set the agenda of these groups.

The current field structure was created in 1955, when the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO.

Federation leaders are counting on the new structure to strengthen both their organizing and political efforts in the field.

Losing Its Grip

The percentage of U.S. workers belonging to a union has declined steeply since the mid-1950s, and the rate is much lower for those in the "new economy."

1954

% all workers 35%

1998

% all workers 14%

% all new jobs 5%

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics