Leslie Frane, executive director of Oregon's Service Employees International Union Local 503 since 2002, is used to bad news in the American labor movement.

The share of U.S. workers who belong to unions has dropped since 1983 from one in five to one in eight, though that spiral has leveled off in Oregon.

And in July, seven major labor unions, including the growing SEIU, withdrew from the AFL-CIO in a national split that raises questions about labor's ability to stick together in politics and to avoid raiding other unions for members.

With Labor Day weekend at hand, Frane discussed unions' relevance in an economy shifting from manufacturing to services, what unions can do to reverse membership trends and the future for organized labor.

WW: Are unions irrelevant in today's economy?

Leslie Frane: Workers need unions more than ever. Globalization, the concentration of corporate power, and the rightward shift in the political climate mean that individual workers have no influence over their wages and working conditions unless they act in groups, preferably large groups. In the workplace and in politics, unions are the one mechanism existing today that enables large numbers of workers to speak in one voice.

Why, then, do the numbers reflect the opposite, with unions having a smaller share of the workforce?

Because opposition is so much stronger. Most unorganized workers, given the free choice, would choose to join unions if the choice was not constrained, but they're met with vigorous opposition.

Aren't unions playing defense and actually being forced to have their members pay more for health care?

Our union's experience is that even in today's tough environment, we can make progress. A good example is the 12,000 home-care workers our local represents. Four years ago, they had no health insurance at all. Now, they have fully paid health care. Effective next year, they will also have fully paid dental insurance, vision coverage, and the ability to purchase coverage for dependents. These workers no longer go to bed at night worried they are one illness away from destitution.

So many new jobs aren't keeping up with the cost of living. How does labor fight that?

We need to organize workers in low-wage jobs so that we can transform those jobs into family-wage jobs...organizing nursing-home workers, janitors, health-care workers and child-care workers-workers in sectors that are growing, sectors where workers are desperately undercompensated for the work they do. We also need to improve the standards of our existing members, including public employees. People are often shocked to learn that thousands of our state employees qualify for food stamps or other public benefits.

How does the SEIU's focus on international labor cooperation help the American worker?

If workers in other countries earn more, then employers in this country have much less incentive to outsource American jobs.... In our international work, we focus on companies that have employees both in this country and abroad. We are working with unions in Europe that represent bus drivers and security workers employed by the same companies that employ bus drivers and security workers in this country. What's crazy is that some of these companies respect unions in Europe but try to bust unions here. And since American labor law is so incredibly pro-business, too often they get away with it.

And now you've got the split from the AFL-CIO.

I don't think most of us were surprised by what happened. The debate within the AFL has been going on for a few years. We announced our disaffiliation when it became clear that the leadership of the AFL was not willing to make substantive change. The crisis facing American workers in today's economy is so dire that we couldn't wait. We're often told that patience is a virtue, but when the percentage of workers in unions is in freefall, there's such a thing as too much patience.

Where would you like to see labor in 10 years?

I'd like to see us reverse the trend so that the percentage of workers in unions increases incrementally each year. I'd like to see the political climate shift so that we can pass labor-law reform enabling workers to decide whether or not to join a union without coercion from employers. I'd like to see the standard of living of working Oregonians increase, so that workers have affordable health care and a greater share of the state's wealth than they have today. If we accomplished those three things, it would feel like a decade well spent.

SEIU Local 503 ( www.seiu503.org ) represents about 30,000 service workers in Oregon.

In February 1887, Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day a legal holiday. It was celebrated on the first Saturday in June.