(FORTUNE Magazine) – You can't blame Douglas Fraser for getting a little excited. "When was the last time anyone from Fortune called about the labor movement?" says the former United Auto Workers president, now teaching labor relations at Detroit's Wayne State University. "The very fact that we're getting calls from the press, and that the Republicans seem worried about what the AFL-CIO is up to--I think that's the proof in the pudding."

Proof of what, you ask? Well, even Fraser won't go so far as to claim a trade-union comeback, just that the labor movement is getting the public's attention. That, in his view, is major progress. The public's attention doesn't come cheap. Under new president John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO plans to spend $35 million to sway this year's elections, and has already rattled Republicans with a TV and radio campaign backing a minimum-wage hike and bashing Medicare cuts. Sweeney has quadrupled the annual organizing budget as well, to $10 million.

Superficially, the timing seems ripe for a union resurgence. Worker anxiety is the media theme du jour. The combination of record profits, a Wall Street boom, huge CEO paychecks, and widely publicized layoffs has brought fierce criticism of big business from Democrats and Republicans alike. Some economists, as the lead story in this section notes, even predict a "worker backlash" that will lead to wage hikes and higher inflation.

But there's a big problem with any union comeback scenario: The basic conditions that caused the decline of the labor movement haven't changed--nor are they about to. Unions weakened over the past four decades chiefly because the U.S. economy changed, and there's no sign it's about to change back to the stable, insulated, manufacturing-dominated beast it was in the Fifties. Another reason was the inhospitable legal and political environment. "We've been virtually stripped of our right to organize and represent people," laments United Steelworkers of America chief George Becker. But the AFL-CIO failed in a push to rewrite labor laws in the late Seventies, when Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, and some 25% of all workers belonged to unions. There's no reason to believe it could succeed now.

The AFL-CIO's new organizing director, Richard Bensinger, hopes to get around the legal hurdles with citywide and industrywide campaigns that look more like protest movements than traditional organizing drives. Labor economist Audrey Freedman says that by focusing these efforts on hitherto neglected workers in educational institutions, hospitals, and the social services, unions could well add some members.

But the labor movement has shrunk so much over the past four decades that it will take massive, almost certainly unattainable membership gains to make it a potent economic force again. In 1995, just 15% of American wage and salary workers belonged to unions, down from an all-time peak of 33% in 1953. More precipitous is the drop in private-sector union membership, from a high of 36% in 1953 to a mere 10% in 1995. The one area where labor has prospered is the public sector. Unionization among government workers is at 38%, and public employees, in fact, now make up 42% of U.S. union members. It is one of the notable things about Sweeney's rise: He is the first AFL-CIO president from a predominantly public-sector union. His Service Employees International Union was once a struggling alliance of elevator operators, maintenance men, and janitors in privately owned buildings. It grew to be one of the nation's biggest unions largely by annexing the likes of the California State Employees Association.

Barring massive cuts in government employment, the AFL-CIO too will become a predominantly public-sector institution early in the next century, predicts Rutgers University economist Leo Troy, who is writing a book on the "twilight" of private unionism. The union movement may thus survive and even thrive, since the forces behind the deunionization of the private economy don't much apply in the public one. But the needs of private-sector workers would become increasingly less important to union leaders.

So where does that leave everybody who doesn't work for the government? Not entirely helpless. Thanks in part to laws and practices brought on by unions, they can sue their employers, complain to regulators, and generally raise hell in ways that weren't possible 40 years ago. And workplaces today are less hierarchical than those of the Thirties and Forties. Less dangerous too. Workers can also vote. In fact, the backlash some analysts predict may be primarily political.

Any prediction that unions will never again be a force in the U.S. economy should be tempered with a glance back to the Twenties, when union membership dropped as low as 12% and organized labor was regularly depicted as a goner in the press. But then came the Great Depression and a worker uprising led by CIO founder John L. Lewis, ushering in the golden age of trade unionism in America.

--Justin Fox