After nearly a half-century of steady decline, American unions are showing unmistakable signs that they’re finally reversing direction.
The clearest evidence of that comes in a survey by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that the percentage of workers belonging to unions grew last year for the second consecutive year- from 12.1 to 12.4 percent of the workforce.
Although that might seem insignificant, the percentage increase meant union ranks grew by more than 425,000 in 2008 to a very healthy figure of more than 16 million. That indicated to economists that union growth is likely to continue at that rate – or perhaps an even greater rate – in the years ahead.
Last year’s growth came despite the steady decline in job growth and increase in unemployment. Unions also had to cope with the fierce anti-union pressures of the Bush administration.
Significantly, two-thirds of the new union members were public employees, who generally are not subjected to the employer intimidation that workers in private employment often face when trying to join or form unions. Overall, about one-third of all government employees are now union members. Only about 8 percent of non-government workers are in unions.
Given a truly free choice, most workers undoubtedly would choose unionization. The advantages are obvious. Last year, unionized workers earned a median weekly salary of $886, non-union workers $691 – more than 25 percent less.
Pay is only part of it. Union members are usually guaranteed employer-financed health insurance and retirement plans financed wholly or in large part by their employers, whereas fewer than half of non-union workers have such coverage.
As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney notes, "In today’s economy, that’s the difference between sinking and swimming."
Beyond better pay and benefits, union members also have the advantage of a greater voice in political affairs and community activities.
Surveys show that more than 60 million workers who want to join unions and reap those advantages won’t even try because they fear employer retaliation. Their fear is real: Every year, more than 60,000 workers who do try are punished, half of them fired.
Employers faced with unionization drives commonly use such tactics as ordering supervisors to spy on union organizers and threatening pro-union workers with firing, demotion or other penalties. They order workers to attend meetings at which employers rail against unions and falsely claim that unionization will force workers to pay exorbitant dues and lead to pay cuts and layoffs or even force the employers out of business. They hire high-priced "union avoidance" consultants to help them with their dirty work.
Although such tactics violate the National Labor Relations Act, employers have had little reason to fear government action. The penalties for violations are slight, if even imposed — at most small fines or small back-pay settlements for workers who are fired. Workers, at any rate, fear complaining about violations because it usually takes months – if not years – for the government to act, and they meanwhile risk being fired or otherwise disciplined.
In nearly a third of the relatively rare instances in which workers are able to vote for union representation, the employers refuse to agree to a contract with the winning union. Workers who strike to try to force them to reach an agreement or otherwise follow the law may be permanently replaced.
Think of how much more unions would grow if those obstacles were removed. Thanks to the election of President Obama and labor-friendly congressional Democrats, that could happen. For Obama and a congressional majority are backing the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that would subject employers who violate the Labor Relations Act to much stiffer fines and make further revisions aimed at returning the law to its stated purpose of encouraging unionization.
The key to that is a provision that could grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer’s workers, rather than holding an election.
Employer groups have mounted a major campaign against the proposed act. They’re asserting that it would deny workers the democratic right to vote on unionization. But that’s simply not so.
The proposed act says workers may choose to have recognition determined by election rather than a check of union membership cards. Under the current law, they have no say. Employers alone have the right to choose between voting and card checks.
Almost invariably, employers have chosen elections, which are anything but democratic. Union supporters are not allowed to enter the employer’s property to campaign among workers, and the voting is held on the property with voters escorted to the polls by employer supervisors.
It’s a wonder that unions have grown at all under those circumstances. But it now seems certain they will continue growing. The only real question is, by how much?
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist, has covered labor and political issues for a half-century.
Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.