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April 14, 2005

A Union in Every Workplace

Why you should read Charles Morris' The Blue Eagle At Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights In The American Workplace

Surveys show that almost 50% percent of American workers want to join a union. Yet just a bit more than 10% of those workers actually belong to one. Why?

Because the law only allows a union where a majority of workers in a particular workplace vote to form one-- and it's extremely hard to jump from no union in the workplace to winning an election in the face of anti-union corporate tactices. So if a workplace starts with only a minority of workers committed to unionization, they have no legal ability to collectively bargain with an employer, even on behalf of those specific workers.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom in the labor world.

But as Charles Morris argues pursuasively in his new book, this conventional wisdom is dead wrong. If, say, thirty percent of workers of an employer want a union, they have the right to form one-- and employers are legally obligated to bargain with them on behalf of the work conditions of the union members. No election is needed since the union is not claiming to represent all workers, just those who join the union and demand better conditions.

Given that a company like Wal-Mart will use scorched earth tactics to prevent any individual store from unionizing -- even closing them if they vote for a union -- a strategy of starting by organizing a minority of workers at multiple stores seems like a far better approach. In fact, labor is actually implementing this strategy at Wal-Mart stores down in Florida in a piliot project, and the Steelworkers just passed a resolution to use "members only" unions at some of the companies where they have had trouble jumping straight to majority support.

Morris explains in his book that much of the initial union upsurge in the 1930s was based on such minority unions. When US Steel was initially unionized, most of the initial contracts were negotiated on behalf of unions who did not represent a majority of employees in US Steel workplaces. Only once those initial contracts were negotiated, and the power of the union was demonstrated, did a majority of workers then vote to join the union.

So if it worked for US Steel, why not use the same tactic against Wal-Mart? And why not bring unions to any company where a minority of workers are willing to band together to demand better conditions?

Morris blames the general failure of unions to use minority union strategies on a false "conventional wisdom" that descended over the labor law world as elections became the norm during World War II and afterwards, so much the norm that the earlier history of minority union bargaining was largely forgotten.

He documents that the clear legislative intent of the National Labor Relations Act was to require collective bargaining by companies with minority "members only" unions.

Given that history, the NLRB has the power to recognize a duty of companies to bargain with minority unions -- important since that means that unions could be supported in such a campaign without changes in federal labor law. Even if the NLRB refused to recognize such a duty to bargain, Morris makes a persuasive case that the courts would have to recognize the rights of minority unions based on the clear text of the law.

Even if the conservative doesn't require unions to bargain with those minority unions, nothing prevents the unions from using strikes, boycotts and all the other historic tools of unions to force them to voluntarily agree to bargain over work conditions for those employees. Morris makes a good legal case for what the courts should do in recognizing the rights of minority unions, but in many ways his more powerful case may be to union leaders to revive tactics that helped build the labor movement back in the 1930s.

Posted by Nathan at April 14, 2005 09:28 AM