Category Archives: Future of Unions

Can Unions Win Without the Employee Free Choice Act?

Source: Labor Notes, March 2009

The Employee Free Choice Act would eliminate the requirement for a two-step process in union drives–first sign up a majority of workers, then hold an election. But is it the election itself that’s the problem, or the very uneven playing field on which it’s held, where the employer has all the advantages?

The Employee Free Choice Act: No Choice for Employer or Employee

Source: Douglas P. Seaton and Emily L. Ruhsam, Employee Relations Law Journal, Vol. 34 no. 4, Spring 2009

The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) was one of the most highly publicized issues during the 2008 presidential election. Despite its name, the EFCA would eliminate the secret ballot election and force arbitrator-created union contracts on employers after 120 days of failed bargaining. Employers are well advised to keep a pulse on EFCA as it is one of the most radical changes ever proposed to the National Labor relations Act and passage would have significant effects on unionization levels in the private sector.

Can Labor Revive the American Dream?

Source: Esther Kaplan, Nation, Vol. 288 no. 3, January 26, 2009

The financial markets are in tatters, consumer spending is anemic and the recession continues to deepen, but corporate America is keeping its eyes on the prize: crushing organized labor. The Center for Union Facts, a business front group, has taken out full-page ads in newspapers linking SEIU president Andy Stern to the Rod Blagojevich scandal. The Chamber of Commerce is capitalizing on the debate over the Big Three bailout to claim that “unions drove the auto companies off the cliff,” while minority leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican senators insist on steep wage cuts. A December 10 Republican strategy memo revealed their central obsession: “Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor,” the memo read. “This is a precursor to card check”–a clear reference to the Employee Free Choice Act.

This simple amendment to federal labor law, which would, among other things, allow workers to unionize when a majority sign cards rather than requiring a bruising election, has galvanized the business community in a way even the $700 billion bailout couldn’t. “I get the sense that this is more important to them than even taxes or regulation,” says the AFL-CIO’s director of government affairs, Bill Samuels. “This is about power. And the business community is not going to give up power willingly.” Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said as much to a meeting with analysts in October. “We like driving the car,” he told them, “and we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us.”

At first glance, Employee Free Choice looks like little more than a technical fix. In addition to allowing unionizing through majority sign-up, it stiffens penalties for intimidating or firing union supporters and imposes arbitration when a company refuses to bargain a first contract. But as the leading corporate lobbies recognize, the bill could have far-reaching effects. By reviving unions, it could push up wages, realigning the broken economy so that company profits are spread beyond CEOs. It could help rein in corporate power and, perhaps most threatening to a business community that has enjoyed decades of deregulation, sustain a progressive majority in Washington in the years to come. If progressives aren’t doing the math, conservatives are. “Unions don’t spend money to elect Republicans,” Senator John Ensign told a group of executives this past fall. “They spend money to elect Democrats. From our perspective, this would have devastating consequences.”

Unions Without Borders: Recent Developments in the Theory, Practice and Law of Transnational Unionism

Source: Alan Hyde and Mona Ressaissi, Canadian Labour and Employment Law Journal, Forthcoming

From the abstract:


Unions facing global capital, or representing migrant workers, or both, should adopt a strategy of: (1) insisting, to the extent possible, on representation of workers by national labour movements covering the location where work is performed; (2) linking those national labour movements in enduring transnational union organizations that coordinate reciprocity; and (3) vigourously seeking alliances with worker support organizations outside the union movement. These conclusions follow a review of recent experiences, which confirm a game-theoretic account in which transnational institutions arise to solve coordination problems among national institutions. (1) The insistence on the local responds to union defeats in European Union law, in which Swedish unions, insisting that Latvian workers building a school in Sweden be paid Swedish wages, were held to have interfered with the free movement of capital. North American unions representing migrant farm workers must avoid the analogous claim that such workers were hired in Mexico or Jamaica, then posted to Canada or the U.S. (2) While existing formal transnational union organizations and framework agreements have achieved little, they offer the promise of future reciprocity. By contrast, ad hoc campaigns seeking union support have achieved less, while engendering cultural misunderstanding harmful to future support. (3) Although systematic comparison is not possible, many anecdotes suggest that alternative worker support organizations in the developed world, are more effective allies for unions in the developing world, than are developed-world unions.

The Little Unions That Couldn’t

Source: T. A. Frank, Washington Monthly, Vol. 41 no. 1, January/February 2009

Card check is worth fighting for–except for the “card check” part.

In Washington, the rhetoric over EFCA has centered on one specific element of the legislation called “card check.” Under the proposed new law, if a majority of employees fill out cards authorizing a union to represent them, the union is automatically certified. Currently, employers can demand a secret-ballot election among employees to reaffirm the results. EFCA would eliminate this option. Republicans have called this a threat to liberty and democratic values. Democrats counter that it’s essential to protecting workers against employer coercion. But this squabble is a distraction. In reality, card check is the least important part of a very important bill. The following story should help explain why.

Rising Productivity, Deepening Inequality

Source: Horst Brand, Dissent, Vol. 55 no. 4, Fall 2008

Last January, the New York Times reported that assembly line workers at Detroit automobile factories, who have been earning around $28 per hour, would be “bought out” and gradually replaced by workers earning as little as half of that. … “In one industry alone, airlines, wage and pension concessions given back to employers since 2001… totaled over $15 billion,” Writes Labor Notes. Yet, output per hour in air transportation rose at an average annual rate of 2.9 percent between 1987 and 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); it rose 3.8 percent in motor vehicles manufacturing. These to examples illustrate what is happening to the bargaining power of trade unions – a steady weakening, a loss that began with the defeat of the air traffic controllers strike in 1981 by Ronald Regan’s administration, a loss, therefore, that is political in nature. And it is in this sense that we must view the widening gap between the advances of productivity and the stagnation of working people’s incomes.

Beyond The Mutual Backscratch: A New Model For Labor-Community Coalitions

Source: Amy Dean and Wade Rathke, New Labor Forum, Vol. 17 no. 3, Fall 2008
(subscription required)

Labor historian David Montgomery once compared the George Meany Era of the AFL-CIO to a great snapping turtle, “hiding within its shell to shield the working-class from contamination” and “snapping out” at those forces who venture too close. But, when he became the AFL-CIO president in 1995, John Sweeney announced that supporting “local coalition-building efforts with community, religious, civil rights and other organizations” would become part of labor’s organizing strategy. Today, collaboration with community groups is the official policy of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and many individual unions.

Now, however, some trade unionists are questioning this commitment, asking whether the benefits are worth the costs. What does labor get in return for the money and effort it puts into cultivating community allies?

Representation Without Intimidation: Securing Workers’ Right to Choose Under the National Labor Relations Act

Source: Arlen Specter and Eric S. Nguyen, Harvard Journal on Legislation, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2008

From the abstract:
Union representation elections are often conducted in an environment of intimidation and coercion, denying employees the freedom to choose whether they wish to be represented by a union. In the United States, both unions and employers have engaged in unfair labor practices in pursuit of their own agendas – misleading employees about the consequences of choosing union representation and, in extreme cases, threatening employees with physical harm. This Policy Essay by Senator Arlen Specter and Eric Nguyen argues that current federal labor law fails to address the problem of unfair labor practices in union representation elections. It discusses how current law provides only toothless remedies that do not deter abuses, and how implementation of these limited remedies by the National Labor Relations Board is plagued by delays. The Essay then surveys the experiences of Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom to illuminate how aspects of foreign labor laws could reduce procedural delays, lead to more responsive unions, and encourage voluntary negotiation between employers and unions if implemented in the United States. The Policy Essay concludes by posing questions that Congress should address while developing new legislation to secure employees’ right to choose union representation.

The State Of The Unions In 2008: A Profile Of Union Membership In Los Angeles, California And The Nation

Source: Ruth Milkman and Bongoh Kye, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, September 2008

From the summary:
Over the past several years, the nation’s unionization rate – the percentage of all employed wage and salary workers who are union members – has suffered serious decline. There was a slight uptick in the past year, however, countering the long-term downward trend. In the first half of 2008, unionization rose half a percentage point over the 2007 level, to 12.6 percent of all U.S. employed civilian wage and salary workers.

How Successful Have Trade Unions Been? A Utility-Based Indicator of Union Well-Being

Source: John Pencavel, IZA Discussion Paper, DP3660, August 2008

Can conventional economic analysis help in defining and measuring the success of labor unions? In this paper, a general indicator of union welfare is proposed and particular expressions for the wage and employment objectives of unions are rearranged to derive measures of union success or welfare. These indicators combine two measures: union density and the relative union-nonunion wage gap. The indicators are applied to describe the movement of union welfare in the United States over the past eighty years, the differences in union success among groups of U.S. workers, and the variation in union well-being across countries.