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June 19, 2003

Why Unions Have Trouble Organizing Workers

Kevin Drum at this CalPundit post asks why unions have so much trouble expanding, citing Wal-Mart as an example:

Sure, Wal-Mart is opposed, but the workers there are treated shabbily and paid worse, so you'd think it would be a slam dunk to get certified. But it's not. So what's the problem? What are the workers afraid of?
The simple answer is being fired. Which happens pervasively in union drives. Just to use a source that is not necessarily pro-union, read this article from Business Week looking specifically at Wal-Mart in the broader context of harassment against union activists. Some key excerpts:
Fully half of all nonunion U.S. workers say they would vote yes if a union election were held at their company today, up from about 40% throughout the 1990s, according to polls by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc. Yet unions lose about half of the elections they call.

One big reason: Over the past two decades, Corporate America has perfected its ability to fend off labor groups...companies facing labor drives routinely employ all the tactics Wal-Mart has used to get workers to change their minds. Many of these actions are perfectly legal, such as holding anti-union meetings or inundating workers with anti-union literature and videos.

Those that are illegal carry insignificant penalties, such as small fines or posting workplace notices about labor rights. Firing activists--as companies do in fully one-quarter of union drives, according to studies of NLRB cases--is difficult to prove and takes years to work through the courts. That's long after a drive has lost steam. Workers may want unions, "but the question is whether [labor] can overcome the fear generated by an employer's campaign to get them to take the risk," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell University researcher who did the studies.

Under the Taft-Hartley law passed by Congress in 1947 (and amended slightly a few years later), unions lost most of the tools of solidarity strikes and other tools that allowed them to organize broadly in the 1930s. So workers end up facing off against giant multinational corporations without being able to seek support from other unions. For example, if workers at Wal-Mart are fired illegally, workers at firms doing business with Wal-Mart cannot take strike or picket action in protest against their own companies supporting a union-buster. Non-Wal-mart companies cannot negotiate contracts where their employers refuse to do business with Wal-Mart. Such bans on "secondary boycotts" and "hot cargo" agreements leaves workers isolated against the combined massive power of a corporation like Wal-Mart.

So, essentially, you have the government issuing meaningless penalties against union-busters, while that same government threatens massive sanctions against unions if they engage in solidarity support themselves for workers facing illegal firings or harassment.

Here are some more sources on information on union-busting in the United States:
Labor Research Associates Union Busting info page

Posted by Nathan at June 19, 2003 01:10 PM