Monday, December 13, 2010

If Labor Law is so Unfair, Why Then....

It is no secret that for the past two years Labor has been working to get the Obama administration to change the playing field of organization in favor of unions. The legislative arena has not been so successful for them with but the rules changes put in place by the National Labor Relations Act and the actions of the US Department of Labor may yet have an impact by making it easier for unions to organize workers.

The reason they have been doing this is that union membership is at much lower levels than they would like to see them. They have made the argument that the laws are unfair and biased toward management. These labor laws, which consist of the National Labor Relations Act, the Labor-Management Relations Act and the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act were passed in 1935, 1947 and 1959 respectively. So, to echo my title, if labor law is so unfair, why then was union membership at its peak in the 1950's, with nearly 1/3 of the private sector workforce belonging to unions? The same laws were in effect then as now. Nothing has changed in the legislation. So why today is union membership in the private sector down to less than 8%? The laws have not gotten suddenly "unfair", they are the same as they have always been. So what has changed?

The reasons union membership is at such a low level are many. Here are some of them:
  • In the 1950s many unions became associated and controlled by organized crime. That association remained quite a long while and that left a very disagreeable taste in people's mouths.
  • The nature of work changed. The United States shifted away from the long time stronghold of unionism, manufacturing, to more white collar information/knowledge based jobs. These workers did not see themselves as fitting into "blue collar" unions.
  • Management changed. To avoid the costs associated with unions, management became more aware, astute and employee friendly. Management philosophies of engagement, fair treatment, transparency, and pay for performance, among others, took away the need for union representation in many people's eyes.
  • Workers became more educated and did not see themselves being associated with blue collar organization. (Hold this thought, because that is not the case anymore.)
  • We ran through the bubble, which produce a large population of people who became entreprenurial and did not embrace union "collective" philosophies.
  • Union organizers did not keep up with the times. They held onto techniques and philosophies that became dated and quit working. They embraced, and still do, "classism" which did not appeal to larger and larger segments of the population.
There have been some major changes in the face of unions in the last couple of decades. The type of employee that is unionized has shifted from private sector to public sector. Today over 50% of unionized employees work for some government segment. Federal, state and local employees make up the bulk of unionized workers, especially in northern tier and western states. California has become much more heavily unionized in recent years. From a report from UCLA we get this statement "Fueling the nationwide increase was the recent growth in unionization in California, which currently accounts for 16 percent of all the nation's union members, more than any other state. California's unionization rate in 2008 is 17.8 percent, up from 16.7 percent in 2007 and 15.7 percent in 2006." (Perhaps this may explain the State of California's budgetary crisis and why businesses are abandoning the state.) The educational level of union workers has also been increasing as a result of the government unionization, especially in the unionization of school teachers.

And why is it that government unionization has risen? In my opinion government is an easier target because politicians are swayed by the vote. A politician's job depends on his/her voters and if there is a large, bused-in turn out at the polls, or at least the threat of a heavily unionized turnout in the next election, politicians may be swayed to vote to make things easier for unions. Unions have contributed, and continue to contribute, hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections at all levels. They expect payback. On the national level they have not gotten it legislatively, but they have gotten it by getting union officials appointed to key positions, such as Craig Becker on the NLR Board.

They need this influence because they have been unsuccessful on their own. The rules of the game have not changed. The laws are still the laws. It is just their game plan did not succeed and managment's game plan did. And now that they can't win anymore they want the rules changed. Unfortunately the referree (government) is going along with them and fixing the game.

If you don't believe me, pay attention to what the NLRB has done, or is racing to do.  You can keep up on this information by going to


Dave Ryan said...

So your are saying that most unions have not kept up with the marketplace, and are not meeting the needs of their clients. Thus they now they want the governement to change the rules to accomodate thier inability to sell thier services.

In addition to that the Unions house can't seem to get together with a collective voice as to how things should be done (the AFL-CIO big house).

Despite all of this, I think the Obama administration will leave some scars on the landscape of Labor Management relations - do you as well?

Good Post Mike.

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

You summed it up pretty well. Yes, I agree that the damage that will be done by the NLRB activity will mess things up for awhile.

wllmgould said...

Michael, great piece. I agree with your assessment of the landscape. The part that worries me the most right now isn't a change in how organizing will happen (although I smell that one coming too), but rather the administrative changes (through rulings) that will be enacted by the new labor board. In other words, the rules by which we work with unions that already represent employees are likely to change dramatically. This is going to be a very challenging environment.

It is either a really good time, or really bad time to be an HR pro with labor relations responsibilities.