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Amy Traub

Against the Odds, More Americans Are Joining Unions

You have to be pretty wonky to be research director for a think tank, but even I don’t usually enjoy sitting down and reading the text of legislation. I make an exception though, for the National Labor Relations Act. Take a look. The introduction in particular is beautiful. And yes, I think the 1935 law has some lessons for the present day:

“[Whereas] the inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries… It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce… by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.” (emphasis mine)

The upshot? If working people don’t have the right to freedom of association at work – if they can’t organize unions – they have less bargaining power in the labor market. Then wages are kept low and recessions get worse. So the United States government has an interest in ensuring that employees can unionize and bargain collectively. Hence the NLRA, meant to ensure the right to organize and bargain collectively. It’s the law of the land.

I think of the NLRA today because the Department of Labor has just released data showing that the percentage of American workers belonging to unions has crept up a tiny bit for the second year in a row.

428,000 more workers were union members in 2008 than in 2007. After decades of steady decline, people are braving the gauntlet of intimidation and harassment that organizing a union often involves these days and sometimes emerging successful. On average, they end up with higher wages and better benefits. It’s like a personal stimulus plan! And by putting money into the hands of folks more likely to spend it quickly, reducing the “inequality of bargaining power” and raising wages, it’s a step towards national stimulus as well.

But let’s not get carried away. We’re talking about a union increase from 12.1 percent of the working population to 12.4 percent. And that brings me back to the National Labor Relations Act, and, of course, the Employee Free Choice Act, (EFCA) new legislation which would restore the promise of the NLRA by making union organizing and bargaining less like a trip through hell. EFCA’s off the Congressional agenda until later this year, but big business and their conservative allies are so eager to start the fight that they are stalling the confirmation of Hilda Solis, Obama’s choice to lead the Department of Labor. But with unemployment soaring and working people struggling to get by, this is precisely the time we need a strong Secretary of Labor and the type of union movement the National Labor Relations Act envisioned as a critical part of alleviating “recurrent business depressions.” American workers are doing their part to organize against all odds. It’s time for government to give them a leg up.

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Posted at 1:03 PM, Jan 29, 2009 in Labor
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