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Amy Traub

A Couple More Reasons to Let Us All Organize

The U.S. unemployment rate is as high as in many European countries and is expected to surpass them in the next month. As New York Times columnist Floyd Norris notes, this is a serious blow to the standard arguments about the tradeoffs between labor market flexibility and unemployment. At the moment, we have neither the economic security of the European welfare states nor the economic opportunity that a low rate of unemployment provides. This makes it an excellent time to rethink the vaunted benefits of labor market flexibility, and the degree of it we want and need in this country.

Norris points the way to a reconsideration of welfare state policies, like the German program that provides public funds to companies in order to keep workers on payroll. But he doesn’t consider the role of other labor market institutions like unions, whose long-term contracts also make it difficulty to fire workers, increasing employees’ job security while arguably making the labor market less flexible. With unions representing far more of the workforce and holding more economic power overall in Europe than in the U.S., we should also be rethinking the economic arguments against widespread unionization.

This is a particularly apt time to do so as we look at a new study by Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, who found that the use of illegal anti-union tactics by employers in the United States has intensified in recent years. According to Bronfenbrenner:

"63% of employers interrogate workers in one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union; 54% threaten workers in such meetings; 57% threaten to close the worksite; 47% threaten to cut wages and benefits; and 34% fire workers"

The increase in this threatening and illegal conduct underscores the need for to reform labor laws in order to make the guarantee of workplace rights that already exists under American law real. The comparative unemployment data suggests the economic benefits of doing so might outweigh the costs to an even greater extent than we had previously realized. The problem lies with the politics.

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Posted at 3:36 PM, May 26, 2009 in Economy | Labor
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