Labor law in the United States makes it extremely hard for workers to gain union representation, even where a majority in a workplace explicitly indicate desire for a union. The current legal framework requires a drawn-out election process that allows employers to thwart the will of their employees.
According to a study of hundreds of private-sector organizing campaigns by Cornell University economist Kate Bronfenbrenner, three-quarters of employers facing a drive hired consultants to run anti-union offensives and 92 percent forced employees to attend closed-door, anti-union meetings.
Thousands of workers are illegally fired each year for attempting to organize unions.
The Employee Free Choice Act, a bill currently under consideration in Congress, would amend U.S. labor law to fix these abuses. In addition to strengthening penalties against employers for violating workers’ rights, the EFCA would simplify the procedure for union representation, replacing the protracted election process with a “card check” procedure, requiring only that the majority of a workforce sign cards requesting union representation.
In its campaign against the EFCA, the business community has zeroed in on the Act’s elimination of secret ballots. The Chamber of Commerce has opposed the Act on the grounds that it will “undermine … workplace democracy.”
How special to see the Chamber suddenly championing workplace democracy!
But, alas, workplace democracy does not begin and end with secret ballots – indeed, by tilting the odds so heavily against unionization, the secret ballot process functions effectively to keep democracy out of the workplace.
If the wishes of workers are the primary criterion, American labor law is clearly faulty. Only 12.4% of American workers are currently union members. Survey research conducted by Harvard economist Richard Freeman and Wisconsin sociologist Joel Rogers in 2005 indicates that, if union representation were provided for all the workers who desired it, the rate would be around 58%.
Yet, it is precisely the card check provision of the Act — the real teeth of the proposed reform – that is being used to derail the bill in Congress. In the last two weeks the bill has lost two key supporters, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). Referring to the card check provision, Feinstein stated that “I would hope there is some way to find common ground that would be agreeable to both business and labor.” Bullshit – American unions have been under assault by corporate America for over three decades, and there is no way to agreeably reconcile the majority of workers’ desire for union representation with the rabid anti-unionism of American business.
Perhaps more important for the country as a whole, unionization is about more than democracy in the workplace. Unions help protect workers against the worst excesses of market competition and ensure they get a fair share of productivity gains.
Income inequality grew dramatically in the 1980s. According to research by Martin A. Asher and Robert H. DeFina, published in the Journal of Labor Research, the decline in private-sector union membership accounted for 25% of the rise in income inequality from the period of 1977 to 1992. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2007 union workers in service sector occupations made fully 58% more than their nonunion counterparts.
Because unions have historically been associated with higher productivity, more training, reduced turnover, and more voice in the workplace, these advantages are often enough to support the higher wages union workers earn.
Behind the statistics, however, are myriad ways in which unions make real changes in the daily lives of working people by improving job quality, contributing to community betterment, and setting industry standards.
In a book recently published by the Economic Policy Institute, entitled Organizing Prosperity,I document the ways in which union representation has helped transform major occupations and industries into anchors for the middle class – and how deunionization has led to systematic deterioration in working conditions. The book examines the role of unionization in shaping the working conditions of 12 occupations or industries. Let me highlight three of them.
Working in hotels and restaurants is often a dead-end job. But with union representation, hospitality workers in Las Vegas have built better lives for themselves and their families. The relatively high wages of unionized hospitality workers in Vegas have enabled many to join the ranks of homeowners. One of these workers is Sylvester Garcia, a dishwasher at the Luxor. At $11.86 per hour – $4 more than the national industry average – Garcia owns a six-bedroom home in a mixed neighborhood consisting of hotel employees and white-collar workers.
Nationally, room quotas have increased along with the number of cleaning tasks for each room – now including coffeemakers, irons, and bathrobes – meaning that housekeepers increasingly have to come in early (off the clock) as well as skip breaks and lunches in order to meet quotas. Against the industry trend, union contracts in Las Vegas provide a freeze on the number of rooms cleaned per worker.
Nurses suffer from low pay and working conditions. Because of reduced staffing and increased workloads over the last two decades, nurses increasingly suffer from stress, exhaustion, and frustration at work.
Concerned with the effects overwork on their ability to provide quality care, many nurses have turned to unions. As Mary Sorensen, a registered nurse in St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Ventura, CA, states, “By forming a union, we can make sure employees have a voice in decisions so that we can strengthen patient care – not just the bottom line.”
An agreement worked out in 2002 between CNA and Kaiser Permanente, covering 10,200 registered nurses and nurse practitioners throughout California, includes a ban on mandatory overtime and a retirement health plan.A coalition of nurses’ unions in 1999 successfully lobbied the California state legislature to pass a law mandating nurse-to-patient ratios in hospitals in the state.
As Americans have understood since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, meatpacking is a dirty, tough job. Though still arduous work, the unionization of the industry in the 1940s and ‘50s turned meatpacking into a stable job providing a middle-class income.
But the union shakeout during the late 1970s and early 1980s resulted in a long-term decline in wages and working conditions. The number of cattle slaughtered has grown from around 50 per hour during the heyday of Chicago to as many as 400 per hour today. Trimmers in poultry factories have to process 35 birds per minute. In beef packing, workers make up to 10,000 knife cuts in an eight-hour shift. In order to reduce cuts and strains, many workers take the knives home, spending 40 or more minutes per day – off the clock – to properly sharpen their knives.
The injury rate in meatpacking in 2001 was a disquieting 20 injuries per 100 workers, more than three times the rate (5.7%) for all of private industry. For cumulative trauma disorders such as tendinitis, the incidence rate in meatpacking is nearly 35 times higher than the national average in private industry.
As these examples show, strong unions can help improve working conditions within occupations, going far beyond simply improving wages. Unions can also help set and protect basic employment standards for entire industries. As the case of meatpacking shows, however, when an industry becomes deunionized, working conditions can quickly deteriorate.
MATT VIDAL is Lecturer in Work and Organizations at King’s College London, Department of Management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.