Workers and unions need to support worker-friendly legislation, which will make it easier for workers to join unions. Union leaders must ensure that they utilize member dues in a responsible and effective manner. They need to create, maintain, and advertise union member-only benefits and supporting initiatives that grow union membership. Union leaders must encourage and support their members in public exhibitions of their collective support or dissatisfaction of proposed legislation or current laws which may be beneficial or adversely affect workers.
The United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics states that just 11.9% of United States workers were union members in 2010. This is a decline from a high of about 28% in 1954. One example of union membership growth that has lagged far behind a growing workforce may be seen in the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). Organizers tried to persuade the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to charter an international union for office workers as early as 1919 and spoke of the potential for such a union to represent millions of office workers. “White Collar Union,” a documentary regarding the establishment and development of the OPEIU, states “By 1974 the total membership roles had grown to 94,000” (Finley, 1975, p. 169). However, according to recent financial records supplied to the United States Department of Labor by the OPEIU, its membership levels seem to have stalled hovering at about 100,000 for the last seven years and reflecting a gain of just 6,000 members in the last thirty-seven years. Regrettably, the OPEIU is not the lone American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) member union to fall short of lofty organizing goals.
The United Automobile Workers (UAW), which had ballooned to over 500,000 members within about a year of the Flint Sit-Down in 1947, has about 376,000 members today; this is almost half of its membership level from a decade ago. Membership within the United Farm Workers (UFW) has dropped to slightly over 5,200 from the estimated 27,000 ten years ago. During that decade, the UFW lost more than eighty percent of its membership.
While presiding over the OPEIU’s convention in 1959, OPEIU President, Howard Coughlin chastised, “We find that some of our Local Unions continue to operate as social clubs. In other words, they have regular dinners, parties, or dances for their membership and use dues collected for these functions.” Coughlin continued, “Dues paid in to our Local Unions are to be used solely for the purposes of organizing the unorganized and the attainment of the highest economic levels possible for those who are organized” (Finley, 1975, p. 166). Certainly, union leaders face significant challenges in regards to utilizing the dues of union members in ways which will attract new members and increase current member participation and solidarity. Occasionally adding to the union leadership pressures are overzealous members. These members may not exercise the necessary level of consideration or patience in the union leadership’s actions or inactions (such as when leaders decide whether to pursue a contract violation). So, what are the right ways that unions leaders should use their financial resources (dues) in an effort to reverse the declining percentage of workers in the United States who are union members?
There are several ways to help contribute to a growing union membership. One component is that union leaders can commit resources in support of union-friendly legislation such as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Passage of the EFCA would certainly be received by many as the most important piece of pro-worker legislation which would have the most significant effect on nearly all union organizing campaigns. This legislation would require that the National Labor Relations Board certify a union, and the employer recognize the union as the bargaining agent for the workers after a majority of the workers have signed union authorization cards. The EFCA would also expedite the time it takes workers to receive the benefits attained in having a first contract. It would also increase penalties against employers if they violate the law during organizing campaigns and during first contract negotiations. When employers agree to neutrality in an organizing campaign and accept the card check procedure, employees feel less coerced and can better exercise their free will (Eaton & Kriesky, 2009, p. 170).
It is unfortunate that legislation such as the EFCA has not yet become law. James Sherk and Paul Kersey wrote, “Executive Summary: How the Employee Free Choice Act Takes Away Worker’s Rights,” which embodies the movement against the EFCA (2007, para. 6-8). Sherk and Kersey claim that passage of the EFCA would reduce accountability by providing government officials with authority for the production of a union/employer agreement when negotiations surpass 90 days. They also cite that it currently takes more than 15 months for arbitrators to make a ruling in some states. If the potential outcome could be as disadvantageous for employers as Sherk and Kersey decree, perhaps that’s just one of the incentives they need in order to be fair and more productive during the three month time frame they’d initially be provided under the proposed law. Sherk and Kersey also claim that the EFCA would ignore union abuses in which unions are reported to coerce employees into signing authorization cards. In contrast I would cite the plethora of NLRB-decided cases in which the employer has acted illegally by terminating or otherwise discriminating against pro-union workers during organization drives.
Employer’s punishment has, thus far, primarily been insignificant fines. Undoubtedly there are many more cases in which workers have been illegally terminated or discriminated against and will never be documented because the workers could not emotionally and/or financially afford the fight for justice. These additional instances would raise employer violations even further. Workers suffer far more at the hands of employers who violate the current law than they would due to the possibility that unions may coerce or pressure workers into signing authorization cards under the proposed law.
Another significant component of organized labor’s resurgence in North America, is the labor movement’s investments in member benefits programs such as those provided within the AFL-CIO’s Union Privilege/Union Plus program. I chose to cite these programs because they provide incentives in addition to those traditionally provided to unionized workers which have received positive results (specifically with workers in ‘right-to-work-for-less’ states) since implementation. These supplemental benefits are available only to union members who are in good standing and pay their dues. This is an extremely important factor for workers who are within states wherein workers have the option to ‘opt out’ of paying union dues, but still receive the advantages of union membership in their organized workplaces. When workers can get the same wages and contract benefits whether they join the union, it’s often hard to get the message across that they’ll get a better contract if they join because the union will be stronger. Nancy Wohlforth, Secretary-Treasurer of the OPEIU, states “OPEIU President Michael Goodwin has felt for some time that members-only benefits can give internal organizing a boost if they are presented together in an impressive package” (“A sure-fire,” n.d., para. 1). Some union leaders have come to understand that member-only benefits have significant potential regarding the internal organizing of bargaining units. They created programs (such as the ‘Alliance’ program) which they offer in addition to the AFL-CIO’s Union Plus program.
The United Steel Workers (USW), Industrial Technical Professional Employees (ITPE) and OPEIU have experienced success after introducing their ‘Alliance’ program in Las Vegas, Nevada, where the unions represent more than 4,000 taxi drivers. Following their unveiling of the new benefit during a union meeting, ITPE, Local 4873 Vice President T. Ruthie Jones stated that the union experienced the largest turnout ever for an event held for the taxi drivers in Las Vegas. The program was very well received by the drivers and, “quite a few drivers signed up on the spot!” (“Las Vegas”, 2007, para. 4).
On March 11th of 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a law eliminating the rights of unionized public workers in the State of Wisconsin. The AFL-CIO and many of its member unions such as the OPEIU, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Service Employees International Union organized an impressive protest against the new law, involving thousands of workers. “Police spokesman Joel DeSpain estimated the crowd at 85,000 to 100,000 people, which would top the size of protests in Madison during the Vietnam War.” At present, Walker’s law remains in effect; however, it is a likely example of anti-union politicians ‘winning the battle but losing the war.’ Similar legislation was passed by the governor of Ohio, John Kasich, but it was then expeditiously overturned by the State’s voters. During the first twelve days of a drive to recall Walker, 300,000 (more than half of the needed signatures) had already been collected. A primary motive driving the recall effort is the intent that a new, more labor-friendly governor will be elected and overturn the law eliminating collective bargaining rights for State workers, which Walker signed. These public demonstrations and recall petition drives provide opportunities for people to become personally involved and connected regarding matters which impact working people. If the Walker recall is successful, and Wisconsin’s new governor repeals Walker’s ant-union law which prohibits collective bargaining for state workers, the labor movement could regain the members lost due to Walker’s law. Such showings of solidarity are instrumental in the development of a vital and responsive labor movement. They provide a more realistic and positive ‘face of labor’ (average, hard-working people) as an alternative to the unflattering image of the ‘cigar chomping, fat-cat company Chief Executive Officers’ to which some have likened union leaders. As the labor movement builds on this new image, the labor movement is becoming a stronger recruitment tool for retaining members and attracting new ones.
In order to remain a significant factor in local, state and federal politics, unions need to grow their memberships. Companies are becoming increasingly larger and many are expanding their operations into additional markets. Labor unions need to grow nationally and internationally in order to ensure that workers have the meaningful leverage in negotiations with companies, which are becoming increasingly large and operate in a growing number of markets. By supporting worker-friendly legislation, introducing new benefits for union members, and engaging workers in shows of solidarity America’s unions will adapt to our ever changing labor landscape and the labor movement will persevere.