The dramatic decline in union membership over several decades--in large part the result of deliberate, effective, and often illegal tactics by employers--has a substantial negative impact on the welfare of all American workers. Organized labor not only protects and strengthens the rights of union workers, it is the most powerful voice for fair treatment of all employees and the most effective check on corporate influence in Congress and legislatures across the nation.
The dramatic decline in union membership over the last several decades is one of the most important trends affecting American workers. Organized labor not only protects and strengthens the rights of union workers, it is the most powerful voice for fair treatment of all employees and the most effective force to check the power of corporate interests in Congress and legislatures across America. Protecting workers’ right to organize, therefore, is essential to protecting the welfare of all working Americans.
The percentage of workers in the United States who belong to a union has decreased from a high of over 35% at the end of World War II to approximately 13% today. Although a higher percentage of government employees belong to unions, only approximately 9% of employees in the private sector are union members. The weakening of organized labor has been most notable since the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan replaced air traffic controllers who were on strike. The number of workers who belong to unions has plummeted despite the fact that many unorganized workers in America would join a union if they could, as many as 42 million workers according to some polls.
Although the transfer of many manufacturing jobs overseas and the elimination of jobs because of technological advances account for some of the drop in union membership, much of the decline is the result of employers’ increasing sophistication and effectiveness in opposing the ability of their employees to organize. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) guarantees the right to organize for most workers. Despite legal protections, however, there is substantial evidence that a significant percentage of employers are effectively challenge union organizing through illegal as well as legal means. The unfair and often illegal tactics employers use to challenge the right to organize have become so pervasive in large part because the U.S. government does not effectively enforce these laws.
Workers who try organize are often required to attend anti-union meetings and are threatened with termination, workplace closure, and reporting of immigrant workers to the INS. Employees who are identified as leading organizing efforts are often singled out for particularly unfair treatment. As a result of these anti-union tactics, millions and millions of American workers who would choose to join a union never get to exercise this legally protected right.
Consider these statistics about organizing and the tactics many employers use to keep unions out of the workplace:
Share of U.S. workers who would join unions if elections were fairer: 44%
Employers that illegally fire at least one worker for union activity during organizing campaigns: 25%
Employers that hire consultants to help them fight union organizing drives: 75%
Employers that force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with managers: 78%
Employers that force employees to attend mandatory anti-union presentations: 92%
Employers that threaten to call the Immigration and Naturalization Service during organizing drives that include undocumented employees: 52%
Companies that threaten to close the plant if the union wins the election: 51%
The laws that are supposed to guarantee the right to organize unions are clearly no longer as effective enough to protect American workers. As a result, the labor movement is seeking new approaches to ensure the right to organize and rebuild the voice of the American worker.
One strategy organized labor and workers’ advocates are currently pursuing to make it easier for workers to form unions is to pass legislation that will eliminate the elections now required by law and allow a union to be certified when a majority of workers in a workplace sign union "authorization" cards. This legislation will also increase the penalties employers face when they use illegal means to oppose union organizing.
Other strategies to protect union organizing include the strengthening of employee rights at the state level by passing new state law to grant employee status and bargaining rights for new categories of workers, prohibit use of state funds to support or oppose union activity, and provide for mandatory arbitration for first contracts for certain workers. Labor unions and federations such as the AFL-CIO, SEIU and USWA are also forming new associate membership programs so that workers who do not belong to unions enjoy certain group benefits and can take part in the movement to strengthen the rights of working people and restore a sense of fairness in the American workplace.
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