Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why union membership remains low

The number of workers belonging to unions in the United States grew by 428,000 last year to 16,100,000, mostly thanks to increased membership in the ranks of teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other local government employees.

The 2008 union membership rate in the public sector generally – 36.8 percent –stood in stark contrast to the rate in the private sector – 7.6 percent. In other words, government workers were nearly five times more likely to belong to a union than employees in the private sector.

Collective bargaining contracts covered about 1,700,000 workers who themselves refrained from joining a union. These holdouts were distributed about half and half between the public and private sectors.

Exhaustive data on union membership is contained in the latest annual report, “Union Members in 2008,” issued by the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), based on monthly household surveys conducted by the Census Bureau.

The BLS report, which covers 12 pages, does not explain why unions are stronger in the public than in the private sector. Numerous surveys, however, show not only that private business is much more unreceptive to unions than government agencies, but also that U.S. law permits companies to put that attitude into action.

A new Human Rights Watch briefing paper focuses on labor law and practice in the U.S. private sector, without drawing a contrast with the public sector. After reading the 12-page report, however, I cannot help marveling that even 8,255,000 of private sector workers still belong to unions.

U.S. labor law “is weak and riddled with loopholes,” and employers take advantage of that weakness in the law and in its enforcement to vitiate the right of workers to organize. The HRW briefing paper supports those two findings with detailed evidence. For example:

-- Penalties for firing pro-union workers and for otherwise breaching the law are so small that employers dismiss them as a worthwhile cost of doing business.
-- The government run election procedures by which workers vote for or against a union are heavily slanted against the union.
-- Even if workers succeed in winning an election, an employer can stall reaching a collective bargaining agreement to the point of making the victory meaningless.

HRW is among a growing number of organizations supporting Congressional approval of the Employee Free Choice Act. For Human Rights Watch, that passage is “a human rights imperative.”

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