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
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
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
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
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 an 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.
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister