The NLRA At 70: A Promise Not Kept

This year marks the 70th anniversary of National Labor Relations Act, the Depression-era law that was ­ and still is ­ essential to the well-being of working Americans. But hold the applause, please. It¹s not celebration that¹s wanted. It¹s reform.

The NLRA granted the right of unionization to workers who until then had very few rights. That allowed them to bargain collectively and thus on a more-or-less equal basis with employers ­ a right the workers of 1935 had to have if they were to improve the miserable pay and working conditions inflicted on them and escape blatant exploitation.

Union membership grew rapidly after passage of the law, and wages and working conditions improved markedly.  As President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress had anticipated, the living standards of ordinary people rose to the point that the country at last developed a true middle class.

But though the Labor Relations Act worked well then, it is barely working now. Amendments and lax enforcement have helped create the widespread anti-unionism that¹s reduced union ranks to only about 12 percent of U.S. workers, compared to the high of 35 percent in the 1950s and the current average of about 40 percent in Canada and other western nations.

Studies by government, academic and union researchers indicate that thousands of employers routinely intimidate employees who support or attempt to organize unions, often threatening to fire or otherwise punish them despite the NLRA provisions against such actions. And in more than one-third of the instances in which workers nevertheless vote for union representation, employers avoid negotiating contracts with their union by challenging the election results or simply refusing to negotiate.

Workers have little recourse. If they strike, they can be replaced. If they complain to the government, it may take months ­ if not years ­ for the government to act and they meanwhile will lose their jobs. That keeps many from even attempting to exercise their supposed union rights.

Surveys show that at least 42 million non-union workers want to unionize but won¹t try because they¹re sure to be fired or otherwise disciplined. Every year, more than 20,000 of those who nevertheless try to organize unions at their workplaces are punished, half of them fired.

At the least, employers faced with union organizing campaigns force workers to attend meetings at which they rail against unions, often asserting that unionization will lead to pay cuts, layoffs or even put them out of business.

Employers have little to fear.  The worst that NLRA violators can expect is an order to make meager back-pay awards to the workers in question and offer to re-hire them. The back-pay awards generally are slight, since they allow employers to deduct the amount of the wages earned by workers in other jobs after they were illegally dismissed. The rehiring offers are all but meaningless, too, since the illegally fired workers almost invariably have long since taken other jobs.

Avoiding unionization is financially well worth it to employers. Whatever their jobs, union members invariably are much better compensated than their non-union counterparts. Overall, they¹re paid an average of 26 percent more and are guaranteed employer-financed health insurance, pensions, paid holidays and vacations, sick leaves and other fringe benefits that most non-members lack.

Union members also are assured a greater voice in political affairs and community activities, given organized labor¹s prominence in such matters. And they gain dignity ­ the promise, as one union organizer noted, ³of being treated like a man or woman, with rights and abilities that management must respect.²

What¹s obviously needed if working people are to fully realize the benefits of unionization is the imposition of swifter and stiffer penalties on employers who so openly violate their legal rights.

Obvious, too, is a need to remove the provisions added to  the Labor Relations Act by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. They shifted the NLRA¹s purpose away from encouraging unionization by allowing employers to intervene in union organizing drives and prohibiting union members from waging sympathy strikes and otherwise limiting their ability to act in solidarity with other workers.

The law also should be amended to prohibit employers from replacing strikers, require them to grant union organizers full access to their workplaces, force those who balk at reaching union contract agreements to have the terms decided by an arbitrator, and extend coverage to the millions of temporary workers and others who¹ve been exempted from the law.

It would make great sense as well for union recognition to be  granted automatically on the signing of authorization forms or union membership cards by a majority of an employer¹s workers. That¹s how it was originally, with no lengthy election campaigns, no chance for employers to intimidate workers.

Bills to carry out such reforms have long been pending in Congress. Unless they are enacted, America¹s working people will continue to be denied the full exercise of a worker¹s most basic right.

Copyright © 2005 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator ([email protected], www.dickmeister.com).

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