(Note: Part six of six.)
While supporters of
the Employee Free Choice Act argue that the decline of labor unions is entirely
due to an outdated labor law that hinders workers who seek to unionize, the
bill’s critics are inclined to argue that the decline of labor unions is
entirely the responsibility of union officials. It is true that union leaders
have made some foolish decisions; they have made unrealistic economic demands of
employers, and placed entirely too much emphasis on partisan politics. But it is
not entirely fair to place all the blame on the unions. Congress has to accept
some of the responsibility as well.
If the problem with
labor law could be summed up in two words, they would be "compulsion" and
"accountability." The National Labor Relations Act imposes a number of mandates
on individual workers, and many of these serve to shield union officials from
accountability to their own rank-and-file.
To get a sense of
where the problems exist, consider an anti-union flier found in the appendix to
"Undermining the Right to Organize: Employee Behavior During Union
Representation Campaigns," a study written by two researchers affiliated with
the University of Illinois at Chicago and sponsored by American Rights at Work.
The flier, allegedly distributed by an employer fighting unionization, is titled
"In the Union, Breaking Up is Hard to Do," and goes on to explain that, "There’s
no such thing as trying out the union for a little while." The flier then
explains some of the difficulties involved in removing a union before concluding
that, "Once they’re in, they’re in." At no point do the authors of the report
allege that the wording of the flier is false or deceptive.
It is possible to
remove a union if a majority of workers want to do so, but as we showed in
part five of this series, it’s an involved process, and most of the time
workers are barred from even attempting it. As long as there’s a collective
bargaining agreement in place, workers may be limited to submitting a petition
to decertify a union during a one-month period every three years. For 35 out of
36 months, a union cannot be removed no matter how upset the workers may be at
it. This makes union officials less accountable to those they represent.
That’s not the only
way that the NLRA shields union officers from accountability. In states like
Michigan, where there is no right-to-work protection, workers can be forced to
either join the union and pay union membership dues or pay what is delicately
referred to as an "agency fee," basically union non-membership dues. There have
been legal decisions that limit the misuse of mandatory dues money; in theory
non-membership dues can be limited to an amount covering the cost of
representing workers in collective bargaining and grievances, but even if that
worker quits the union, non-membership dues start off the same as membership
dues, and while it’s possible to get them reduced doing so can be a serious
hassle. The practical upshot is a union official does not need to worry much
about whether any particular worker is happy with the union or not, the dues
money flows either way.
Once a union contract
is in place, individual workers are not allowed to opt out and make their own
deal with their employers. This also weakens union accountability.
How? Well, in the
autobiography that he wrote with the assistance of Mitch Albom, the legendary
Michigan football Coach Bo Schembechler advised athletes to do the following to
keep agents honest: once you’ve been drafted, go into the front office and sit
down with the general manager on your own. Say as little as possible, sign
nothing, but get their first offer on paper if you can. Then when you meet with
agents who want to represent you, say "this much I can get on my own. You take
your percentage out of what you can get me beyond this."
Being able to speak
for yourself means, among other things, that you are in a better position to
evaluate how good a job your representatives are doing. But unions don’t have to
worry about individual workers meeting with the boss to find out what terms they
might get without the union. Individuals are not allowed to negotiate on their
own. That makes it harder for them to really know how well the union represents
them, and makes unions less accountable to workers.
Workers may not know
all the ins and outs of federal labor law, but there’s every reason to believe
that they are aware that unions aren’t very responsive to their concerns. A
Zogby poll of union members, sponsored by the Mackinac Center in 2004, showed
that while 42 percent believed that their union dues were spent mainly on
"helping workers get better pay, benefits, and working conditions," a lot of
other workers saw their dues being spent on other things: 22 percent said their
dues mainly went to "big salaries and perks to people in the union bureaucracy,"
12 percent said "political parties or candidates" and another 24 percent either
said "something else" or admitted they don’t know what the union did with the
Putting the question
another way, 43 percent of union members believed their union did not spend
enough of its funds on "efforts to secure better wages, benefits and working
conditions." All of which points to one conclusion: There are a lot of union
members who have doubts that their union is doing all it can to look out for
What the union
movement needs most right now is tough love; meaningful labor law reform would
make unions more accountable to their members. Right-to-work would allow
individual workers to decide for themselves whether or not the union had earned
their support. Strong paycheck protection legislation would at least give
workers the freedom to opt out of union politics. Either would give workers more
control over union finances.
Lowering the threshold
for union decertification and holding a vote when 10 percent of covered workers
sign a petition calling for the removal of a union would make decertification of
a poor union less burdensome. Removing the contract bar to decertification will
allow union opponents to call for the union’s removal whenever the union fails
to represent workers effectively, instead of forcing them to wait as long as
three years to take action. Either step would have the salutary effect of
forcing union officers to pay close attention to the thoughts and feelings of
those they represent.
workers to opt out of collective bargaining would be the ultimate union
accountability measure. Workers could make their own judgments about the value
of union representation based on the experiences of their coworkers who opted
out. Allowing workers to make their own agreements would mean that unions would
need to deliver real benefits to all of their members or see those members leave
the collective bargaining process.
Any of these reforms
would give workers more choices and at the same time force union officials to be
more responsive to the concerns of those they represent – something that the
Employee Free Choice Act fails to do. The union movement would be forced to
adjust. Those adjustments would be difficult, but the end result would be a
stronger union movement that is accountable to the men and women it represents,
is more focused on providing effective representation in the workplace and more
attractive to workers themselves.
Kersey is senior labor policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy,
a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission
to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and
the Center are properly cited.