Following is the first set of responses from Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workplace correspondent for The Times, who is responding to your questions about the evolution of the nation’s labor laws and labor unions since the Triangle fire 100 years ago.
Why no continued debate on the weakening of the secret ballot in union elections?
— Posted by Desert Dweller, La Quinta, California
When the National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935 under Franklin D. Roosevelt, giving America’s private-sector workers a federally guaranteed right to unionize and bargain collectively, the government essentially gave workers two methods to choose a union – through a secret ballot election or through a process known as card check. When that latter method is used, the employer will agree to recognize a union once a majority of its employees sign cards saying they want to have a union. Essentially, the National Labor Relations Board saw either method, as credible.
What you refer to as “the weakening of the secret ballot” is related to the debate over the push by organized labor for the Employee Free Choice Act. It would give workers and the union the right to insist on using card check, rather than a secret-ballot election, to determine whether a majority of workers want a union.
Unions prefer card check to secret-ballot elections largely because it is more successful in unionizing shops; in fact they argue that the election process has grown so unfair that it has become a major reason for the decline in union membership among private-sector employees. The unions argue that the 40-day or 60-day campaign before a union election is skewed in favor of an employer, as union organizers are barred from company property.
The employer, meanwhile, has 24/7 access to employees and can hold group or one-on-one meetings or take other steps to turn the workforce against unionization. Employers argue that the campaign process is fair — and say private-sector membership is in decline because unions have an obsolete message, which they don’t sell very well.
Many employers and their Republican supporters in Congress denounce card check, saying it allows union organizers to unfairly strong arm or bully workers into signing pro-union cards – a gross exaggeration of the process, union officials say. With Republicans in control of the House and the Democratic Senate no longer filibuster-proof, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which is often called the “card check bill,” is remote, and there is little debate now on what you call “the weakening of the secret ballot in union elections.”
By the way, the National Labor Relations Act was also known as the Wagner Act because its main sponsor was Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York. He was catapulted to fame after leading a legislative commission that investigated the Triangle Fire, as well as factory conditions across New York State.
Is Wisconsin (or other similar laws or movements) proposing to erode rules related to worker safety?
— Posted by G. Gamble, New Rochelle
The law limiting union bargaining in Wisconsin, like laws proposed in other states, does not include explicit references to limiting worker safety. But Republicans and union officials are on opposite sides of the question of whether limiting collective bargaining will have such an effect on worker safety: the Republicans say no, the unions and their members say yes.
The newly passed budget bill in Wisconsin limits collective bargaining to just one subject, wages (and it sets a maximum wage increase at the Consumer Price Index, although if a government unit agrees to a raise higher than the C.P.I., that raise will need to be approved through a public referendum — which would seem unlikely).
Union officials assert that barring unions from bargaining over worker safety with government entities in Wisconsin will lead to less-safe workplaces, as the bargaining table is the most effective place to get employers to focus on such issues. But the Republicans who support the bills restricting collective bargaining say the same purpose is served by occupational safety laws. Moreover, the supporters of such laws say that even without collective bargaining, individual workers can approach management to point out any safety problems and ask for improvements. Union officials counter that many workers are scared to stick their necks out to speak out about safety problems – and that it is far less difficult to intimidate a union than it is an individual worker.
Seven percent of workers in the private sector are unionized. Can unions organize in the private sector anymore and please elaborate why or why not? Do you think E.F.C.A. was a good piece of legislation? Lastly, what role does internal democracy and labor leadership play in organizing efforts and the general opinion of unions?
— Posted by Bennett Baumer
Union officials and many academics say it is extremely hard to organize private-sector workers because the playing field is in many ways tilted in favor of management. As I said earlier, when unionization elections are held, it is easy for employers to flood the field during the 40-day or 60-day campaign that precedes the election. Companies often require workers to attend one-on-one sessions, group sessions, watch videos, meet with their direct manager –- all to hear an antiunion message again and again. Generally union organizers are not allowed to set foot on company property, and often have to contact workers by phone or visiting their homes, putting them at a disadvantage in getting their message out.
Many union officials see the playing field as so tilted that they have largely given up on unionizing private-sector workers, concluding that it is not worth the investment of energy or money. Union officials say companies too often intimidate workers into voting against the union by threatening to close the plant or by firing the two or three most active, most outspoken union supporters at the plant. In Chapter 13 of my book, “The Big Squeeze,” I write about the challenges unions face and I focus on a Florida nursing home worker, Marie Sylvain, who was fired (illegally, the courts ultimately ruled) after she took the lead in pushing for a union. It took four-and-a-half year for the courts to reinstate her, but by then the unionization drive was dead, the workers long ago intimidated.
Business executives often say the problem isn’t a skewed playing field, but that unions no longer have a catchy or timely message, that unions might have been needed back in 1911 when there were horrid working and safety conditions, e.g., the Triangle fire, but aren’t at all needed now when wages and working and safety conditions are much better.
Does internal union democracy help organizing efforts? There are those who, perhaps with a cynical view of life, contend that internal union democracy hurts unionizing efforts because one needs a tough, forceful union leader, perhaps like Jimmy Hoffa, to take charge and push people to organize. But I disagree. I think internal union democracy is needed to show potential union members that unions are democratic, responsive organizations, that they listen to union members and their wants and needs. Besides, internal union democracy is vital to help stamp out union corruption. Repeated eruptions of union corruption have badly embarrassed the labor movement and of course made it harder for unions to recruit new members.
Lastly, labor leaders play a huge role in organizing efforts. Many labor leaders don’t care a whit about organizing, partly because it is so hard and taxing to organize and partly because they are happy to reign over the domain they now have. It is the leaders who are still eager to organize the unorganized, who have a burning desire to improve wages and conditions for, say, low-paid, overworked dishwashers, janitors, cemetery workers, hotel room attendants, nursing home aides, or construction laborers who can make a huge difference in whether workers are organized.
I am curious. Why hasn’t Wal-Mart been unionized? Why is it that one family is enriched at the expense of more than one million workers who subsist on stagnant, low wages? Why isn’t Wal-Mart investing in people? Why isn’t there a good and decent wage and benefit package for Wal-Mart workers? Why hasn’t Wal-Mart been taken apart much as we did with Ma Bell? Why do we allow a corporate giant to import billions of dollars worth of merchandise each year from China and other low wage countries while more than 14 million Americans no longer have manufacturing jobs? Where is the union? Where is our common sense and good judgment ? We are courting economic disaster while saving a few pennies and making the Waltons fabulously rich … at our own expense and peril. Indeed, at risk of our own demise. Again, where is the union? Where is the call to protect and defend these workers? Where? And when?
— Posted by Jay
I think someone can write a book, or two or three, in answering your questions. Let me take a stab at a few of them.
Why hasn’t Wal-Mart been unionized? Wal-Mart, as I explain in my book, has been fiercely antiunion ever since Sam Walton founded it, and far more aggressive in fighting to keep out unions than most companies. But the truth is, the United Food and Commercial Workers, which would be the logical one to unionize Wal-Mart workers, was for years doing very little in the way of union organization there –- in essence, Wal-Mart became a nonunion behemoth while the U.F.C.W. slept. In recent years, that union has stepped up its organizing efforts and officials said it initially saw a lot of support from Wal-Mart workers in Minnesota. But then the company flew in its antiunion brigade from Arkansas and the tide sharply turned against the union.
You ask, “Why isn’t there a good and decent wage and benefit package for Wal-Mart workers?” Wal-Mart officials will argue that they have a “good” wage and benefit package –- which, they would say, is why they are able to attract more than one million Americans to work at Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart’s critics will say the $9, $10, $11, $12 an hour that Wal-Mart pays is just too low to raise a family, indeed too low to keep households above the poverty line. They will say that it is the high unemployment rate, rather than Wal-Mart’s wages and benefits, that influences workers’ decision to take those jobs. Wal-Mart’s critics further say that the company’s health plans are skimpy and that too often Wal-Mart employees face a deductible of $2,000 or more to obtain many health services, fairly prohibitive for someone earning just $23,000 or $25,000 a year. Wal-Mart officials point to studies showing that they pay slightly more than most other discount stores, but Wal-Mart’s critics say the nation’s largest company, the world’s largest retailer, should be a model employer, one that ensures its employees have a living wage.
You ask, “Why do we allow a corporate giant to import billions of dollars worth of merchandise each year from China and other low wage countries while more than 14 million Americans no longer have manufacturing jobs?” One reason is free trade — free trade and free enterprise give Wal-Mart a green light to source billions of dollars of products from China. (Would you bar Wal-Mart from doing that?) Wal-Mart, like many other American companies, finds it financially advantageous to buy products from China and import them into the United States, rather than have them produced in the United States, where labor costs, whether for unionized or nonunion workers, are many multiples of what they are in China. Another big reason why Wal-Mart imports from China: American consumers are apparently happy with the price and quality of China-made products. Clearly, if American consumers, out of economic patriotism or for whatever reason, strongly resisted buying imports from China or other countries, Wal-Mart or other companies might think twice about sourcing products from those other countries.
How would I.T. and tech workers go about setting up a union, and should they? Many of my friends, particularly the younger and more recently graduated ones, have gotten caught in an underclass of undercompensated, underappreciated contract workers. It’s probably worse since we’re in the Midwest, not on the coasts where prestigious tech companies compete for the best and brightest by increasing their benefits. And the good jobs that do exist are constantly under pressure of the threat of outsourcing and being farmed out to more low-paid contractors.
— Posted by Thoughtful
It’s not my role to say whether or not I.T. workers should try to set up a union. If workers are very happy with their jobs, their pay, their working conditions and their managers, then there is probably little reason to try to unionize. If they are convinced that they are underpaid and overworked and that their managers are insensitive despots, then maybe they’d want to unionize. If one wants to take the first steps toward unionizing, it would probably be best to gauge your coworkers to see how happy or unhappy they are with their wages and working conditions -– and to see whether they want to do something about it. If so, at that point you might want to reach out to a union and one of its organizers. I.T. workers probably would fall under the jurisdiction of the Communications Workers of America, which is one of the most aggressive unions in seeking to organize workers. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Newspaper Guild, which is part of the Communications Workers of America.)
The communications workers are battling right now to unionize tens of thousands of T-Mobile workers, but have been meeting stout resistance from the company.
In the wake of the Wisconsin labor law being signed by the governor, and baring any further delay in it’s enactment, how does the National Labor Relations Board factor into the story. Can they stop this law completely, or bring a lawsuit? What kind of action from the N.L.R.B. is most probable, if any?
— Posted by Fullwaister
The National Labor Relations Board has nothing to do with the labor law that Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, has signed. The National Labor Relations Act and the N.L.R.B. concern only private-sector workers. The labor relations act does not cover government workers, leaving it up to each state to decide on its own whether to allow public employees in that state to unionize and bargain collectively. In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to pass a law giving public employees the right to unionize and bargain. Now, Governor Walker wants to largely undo that law.
I am amazed that unions don’t teach the history of unionism to their members, or inform the public and keep the public informed about why workers need unions. There are too many misconceptions about unions that need to be addressed.
The school systems teach students about the titans of industry and and individuals who made business successes of themselves, but I never see or hear much about the labor movement or the people involved in it.
Union leadership seem too caught up in politics rather than pursuing basic unionism. Perhaps union leaders find politics more exciting and easier than to get involved with the basic purpose of unions and maintaining and growing the union base. Union membership is declining because union leaders are too involved in things other than unionism and looking out for workers.
— Posted by Herb
It seems to me that union leaders have not done a very good job teaching the history of unionism. Sometimes they seem too preoccupied with myriad other matters to worry about reaching or teaching the young, but often they just seem to lack vision on what they need to do to survive, if not thrive. I often think the best they do in teaching about unionism is to distribute that bumper sticker: “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend.”
I’m often amazed at how little some younger Americans know about unions. I guess they learn something about unions in their history and civics classes, but I would imagine that some political officials do not want much taught about unions, for fear of helping unions or being accused of tilting too much in favor of unions. See for instance my story today about Maine’s Republican governor ordering the removal from a 36-foot-wide mural in the State Labor Department because he deemed it one-sided in favor of unions.
Is there a legal right to collective bargaining?
— Posted by Got Kids
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 created a federally guaranteed right for workers in the nation’s private sector to bargain collectively with a few ifs attached to that right. If you’re a private-sector worker, you can exercise that right to bargain collectively only if a majority of the workers at your workplace have at some point voted (or used card check) to demonstrate that a majority of them want a union. Once a majority voice support for a union, then an employer is generally required to bargain with the union. Some private-sector workers, such as farm workers, are not covered by the N.L.R.A. and do not have such a federally guaranteed right, although California has filled that vacuum by enacting a law that gives that state’s farm workers the right to bargain.
The National Labor Relations Act leaves it up to each state to decide whether to give public employees –- state employees, city employees, school district employees — the right to unionize and bargain collectively. About three-fourths of the states have laws allowing some or all of the public employees in the state to bargain collectively. But now, in Wisconsin and Ohio, we are seeing efforts to scale back that right.
Some conservatives argue that it is wrong to suggest that the N.L.R.A. gives a “right” to bargain collectively. Some conservatives argue that all political rights come from the Constitution and Bill of Rights –- and that Congress can not give people any rights. When I once said on a radio show that Wisconsin is largely curtailing public employees’ “right to bargain collectively,” one person said to me afterward that that is not a right, that a state can not create or grant such a right, that any rights we have are God-given.
Public-sector unions receive benefits that far exceed their counterparts in the private sector. These benefits include generous pensions, early retirement and lifetime health benefits for little or no cost.
They were able to gain these benefits through collective bargaining with elected officials who are usually incented to accede to union demands in order to be re-elected. The only sensible way to stop the process of awarding rich and taxpayer-abusing compensation packages to public workers is to strip them of the right to collectively bargain for them.
Do you see any other way to do this?
— Posted by Temperence Hill
True, employees in public-sector unions generally receive better pensions and health benefits than private-sector workers. But numerous studies have shown that public-sector workers receive lower wages than private-sector workers, not including benefits. Read this excellent story by my colleagues Michael Cooper and Michael Luo.
And numerous studies have also found that even when pension and health benefits are included, public employees have lower overall compensation than private-sector employees -– although many people refuse to believe this because of the generous pension and retiree health benefits that many public employees receive. Here is one such study, commissioned by the bipartisan Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the nonpartisan National Institute on Retirement Security.
Yes, it’s true that some political leaders have been quite generous to unions because labor contributions and foot soldiers helped elect them -– and they fear labor’s wrath in the next election if they cross the unions. But I have also seen many political leaders get tough with unions and demand pay freezes or other concessions — and succeed in getting those concessions. Nowadays, it seems that many politicians see that they will do better at the ballot box by taking on public-sector unions than by sucking up to them. Just look at how Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, deliberately eschewed much labor support when he was running for governor of New York. And many governors, unlike Scott Walker of Wisconsin, seem confident that they can wrest substantial concessions from unions, worth billions of dollars, while still letting them keep their right to bargain collectively. Just look at Chris Christie in New Jersey, a Republican, or Mr. Cuomo. And Mayor Bloomberg agrees that unions should maintain the right to bargain collectively, and, he, too, seems very confident that he can obtain important concessions from them.
I should add that I’ve interviewed several government leaders who say that collective bargaining can lead to important savings by fostering labor-management cooperation that produces smart, creative ways to increase productivity or eliminate waste and by getting more employee buy-in and better morale, helping to advance management’s goals.