Robert Reich on Unions

Robert Reich, in a post, “Time to Join a Union (Or At Least Have the Right To)” argues in favor of legislation in Congress (unlikely to pass) that would make it easier to form unions.

There is a case to be made for increasing labor’s power relative to capital. Even with a minimum wage increase, it’s possible to work full time and not earn enough to be self-supporting (and we don’t mean by virtue of having expensive habits). That alone says the wage formation process is broken. And even though raising wages at the bottom does result in the loss of a few jobs, labor demand is not all that elastic (you still need people to work at Wal-Mart and do menial jobs). The income gains are significantly greater than the job losses, so the total income to the bottom group rises.

Reich glosses over complaints that opponents have of the pending bill (they claim that union organizers would be permitted to have supporters sign simple cards, and such a process would be rife with fraud. That problem would not be difficult to address). But if anything he underplays the underhanded tactics that some companies use to keep unions out.

From Reich’s post:

You’d think that more than seventy years after the right to form a union was enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act, workers could have a union if a majority wanted one.

Think again. Under current law, a majority vote isn’t nearly enough. Even if one hundred percent of workers want a union, employers can still stop them by demanding that the simple vote be followed by a complex process ending in a secret ballot – a process so long and drawn out that some employers use the time to fire union organizers and threaten others. End of story.

This week, the House votes on a bill that would allow a majority of workers to sign up for a union and get one. Odds are the bill will make it through the House but get stuck in the Senate, where sixty votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. Bush has already said he’d veto it in any event. But the vote is important nonetheless. It will put members of Congress on record, and voters will be reminded in 2008 who voted for and against. (I and others in the Clinton administration and congressional Dems tried to get the labor laws reformed in the mid-1990s, but Gingrich and company wouldn’t even allow a floor vote.)

Employer groups are lobbying furiously against the bill. They prefer the current long, drawn out process that gives employers time to use threats and coercion to prevent unionization. Such strong-arm tactics are illegal but the penalty for getting caught is a slap on the wrist. Charges of illegal dismissals take years to wind their way through the National Labor Relations Board and even when the Board finds that an employer acted illegally, the worst that can happen is the worker has to be rehired and given back pay that was lost. In 2005 alone, over 30,000 American workers were awarded back pay because their employers were found to have illegally fired or otherwise discriminated against them for their union activities.

A half century ago, most employers obeyed the law and allowed workers to organize. In the 1950s, the National Labor Relations Board found illegal dismissals in only one of every 20 union elections. But in subsequent decades, competition heated up, investors demanded higher returns, employers felt increasing pressure to cut wages, and union-busting became the name of the game. By the early 1990s, according to government data, illegal dismissals occurred in one out of every four union elections. Nowadays, even though polls show most workers would organize a union if they could, the process is so complicated that it’s rare they even get to choose.

Employers say a simple up-or-down vote, such as featured in the House bill, would allow pro-union workers to intimidate their co-workers. They argue for the more elaborate secret ballot. They say a secret ballot is essential to democracy. But they’ve got it wrong. Workplaces aren’t democracies. Employers have the power to hire and fire – and this is exactly where the potential for intimidation lies. The only way around it is to go with a simple up-or-down vote.

America’s rising economic tide has been lifting executive yachts but leaving most working people in leaky boats. Workers need more bargaining power. They should be allowed to form a union when a majority of them wants one – as simple as that.

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