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
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
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
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
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
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
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 and 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?
Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister