Seventy years ago our Congress guaranteed the right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers. But that was only on paper. It took the famous "sit-down strikes" of Flint, Michigan in 1936-7, where workers occupied the auto factories and refused to leave, before that right became a reality.
Now we are back to square one. The right of workers to join unions and negotiate for a contract has been so eroded over the past three decades that it hardly exists at all in the United States. That was the conclusion of Human Rights Watch five years ago, and it has only gotten worse. Employers routinely fire workers for trying to organize a union. When there is a strike, they can "permanently replace" their entire labor force - a weapon that was rarely used until the 1980s.
Employers often threaten to leave the country, a threat made increasingly deliverable as more of U.S. manufacturing production has moved overseas. They hire union-busting consultants and subject employees to one-on-one, often intimidating meetings with their supervisors. Then, if the union can still win an election - where the majority of workers vote to choose the union as their bargaining representative - the company is required by law to "bargain in good faith." But too often they don't - and about a third of the time, they never sign a contract even after the union has been certified.
What can be done about this? There is currently legislation before Congress that would level the playing field a bit. The bill is called "The Employee Free Choice Act" and it now has 207 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives (218 are needed to pass it in the House) and 42 in the Senate. This law would change the rules so that once a majority of employees had signed cards indicating their preference for a union, the employer would be required to recognize the union and bargain.
Under present law, workers that gather a majority in support of a union still have to go through a number of other hurdles, including an election at the workplace. By making the process simpler this legislation would short-circuit a lot of the harassment and threats, intimidation, firing, and endless legal challenges that currently prevent workers from forming a union. The bill also provides for Federal mediation, and if necessary, arbitration in cases where the union and the company cannot reach agreement on their first contract. And it also stiffens some of the penalties for companies that deliberately violate the law regarding workers' right to organize - which currently are so small as to amount to virtual impunity for employers.
There are, according to survey data, some 42 million American workers who would join a union if they could. But even beyond these 42 million, the rest of our society has a huge stake in this structural reform. The U.S. ranks near the bottom among developed countries in the percentage of organized workers. Not coincidentally, we are also the only developed country that has one-sixth of our population without health insurance. As a result we spend nearly twice as much per person on health care as other high-income countries do, yet we also rank near the bottom on life expectancy and infant mortality.
We also have created an economy in which the majority of Americans no longer share in the gains from economic growth. Over the last 30 years productivity increased by more than 80 percent, but the real (inflation-adjusted) median wage increased by only 9 percent.
Unions are a vital countervailing force in a democracy that is increasingly dominated by large corporations. We can no longer afford to deny workers the right to join them.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.