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Unions Are Growing – Finally


Here’s some welcome news you may not have heard: The percentage of U.S. workers in unions actually increased last year. It was the first increase in more than 30 years, and could very well mark the beginning of a steady reversal of what has been a steady decline.

 

That’s good news for all of us, since widespread unionization is one of the essentials for a truly healthy middle class and thus a truly healthy economy.

 

The news is from a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that unionized workers made up 12.1 percent of the workforce in 2007, up from 12 percent in 2006. It may sound meaningless, but that increase of one-tenth of one percent means that overall union membership grew by 311,000 to 15.7 million — the highest total in many years.

 

The increase, mind you, comes at a time when workers and unions are under great and growing pressure from employers and the virulently anti-labor Bush administration and its Republican allies. They also face a continued slowing of job growth and increase in unemployment, as many jobs move abroad, especially those in the once heavily unionized manufacturing industries.

 

What’s more, real wages continue to drop, and though employer profits continue to rise, the share of national income going to the workers’ wages and benefits has sunk lower than it has been in four decades.

 

Given those circumstances, it’s remarkable that unions have grown at all – but hardly remarkable that many workers seek unionization as virtually the only way to improve their deteriorating conditions.

 

Neither is it remarkable, however, that employers and the Bush administration and its allies have done their best to thwart the workers – to the point that, as recent studies show,  more than  half of those who want to join or form unions have been unable to do so. That includes at least 60 million workers whose fear of illegal employer reprisal keeps them from even trying. Their fear is real: Every year more than 60,000 workers who do try are punished, half of them fired.

 

The recent union growth stems largely from new organizing efforts by the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees, Teamsters and five other key unions that left the AFL-CIO three years ago to form a rival Change to Win federation. But it will take more than those efforts to bring union membership to all of the millions who want it – and need it.

 

It will require a thorough revamping of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that’s supposed to guarantee U.S. workers the unfettered right of unionization — plus the election of a Democratic president to fairly enforce the law, as Democratic office seekers generally have promised to do.

 

The NLRA has grown so feeble and is so poorly enforced that employers have been able to routinely intimidate union adherents.

 

They commonly use such tactics as ordering supervisors to spy on union organizers and to threaten 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.

 

Employers have little reason to fear government action. The penalties for violations are slight, at most small fines or small back-pay settlements for workers who are wrongly 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 in the elections currently required by the NLRA, 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.

 

The essential revamping of the NLRA would be carried out by a bill that’s long been pending in Congress – the Employee Free Choice Act.  It would subject employers to stiffer fines, swiftly imposed, and make further revisions aimed at returning the  Labor Relations Act  to its stated purpose of encouraging unionization.

 

The key to that is a provision that would automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer’s workers, rather than holding an election. The law was like that originally, with no lengthy election campaigns and thus much less opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.

 

Under another provision,  employers who stalled in negotiations on a contract with workers who choose unionization would have the terms determined in mediation or dictated by an arbitrator.

 

The new numbers showing a slight increase in union membership are heartening. But the law must be reformed if U.S. workers are to finally be guaranteed the vital right of unionization.

 

 

Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com

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