Like the F-word, the U-word is largely taboo in polite society, especially among younger Americans. According to a recent survey 41% of Americans "disapprove" of unions (see http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2010/09/why-has-union-membership-declined.html). Generation X,Y and Z Americans are more likely to view unions as irrelevant, rather than bad or harmful. Friends warn me no to use the word "union" -- that young people are turned off by the terms "union," "organized labor" and "collective bargaining." They want me come up with sexier terms to describe the need for worker solidarity in confronting the unequal power relations between employers and employees. I disagree. Young people seem to have no difficulty comprehending the necessity to join forces with co-workers in confronting arbitrary and abusive employers. They shun unions because they view them as ineffective in protecting labor rights: American unions are incapable of preventing lay-offs, wage and benefits cuts or even direct attacks on collective bargaining rights.
Why American Unions are De Facto Government Unions
Thanks to the repressive Taft Hartley Act the US passed in 1947, American unions essentially function as government unions, owing to stringent federal restrictions on their activities. This really struck home as I read about the essential role illegal Egyptian unions played in Egypt 's February revolution (see "Egypt's Invisible Labor Movement" ). In Egypt , all workers are required to join the government-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation, and independent trade unions are banned. Members of the Trade Union Federation are required to get government permission (which is rarely granted) to strike. However since 1998, nearly two million Egyptian workers have formed independent unions and have engaged in more than 3,000 strikes. Moreover it was the threat of a general strike (and the closure of the Suez Canal ) that ultimately forced Mubarak to resign.
Should the US Repeal the Taft Hartley Act?
Obviously there is no official government union in the US . Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, the Taft Hartley Act forces the American trade union movement to function as a de facto government union by repealing many of the labor rights guaranteed under the 1935 Wagner Act). The 1947 Taft Hartley Act was passed by a Republican Congress over President Truman's veto. Yet the increasingly pro-corporate Democrats, despite unwavering support from organized labor, have never attempted to repeal it -- despite numerous opportunities when they controlled both Congress and the White House.
Repealing Taft Hartley was part of Ralph Nader's platform in the 2000, 2004 and 2008, which might explain why the so-called "alternative" media attacked him so viciously. In fact the only people talking about repealing Taft Hartley are Nader, a few socialist groups, and Dr Elaine Bernard, the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School (see The War Against Unions). Certainly no one in the trade union bureaucracy talks about it. Nevertheless so long as Taft Hartley remains in force, the "official" trade union movement is virtually paralyzed in fighting the all-out attack in many states against the right to unionize.
How Taft Hartley Restricts Labor Rights
The US union movement was built during the last serious recession (the Great Depression, which started in 1929). Then, as now, employers took advantage of the economic downturn to cut wages, pile on work and force employees to work under sweatshop conditions. In the 1930s organized labor, led largely by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), fought back through slowdowns, mass pickets (to prevent scabs from crossing picket lines), sit down and "wildcat" strikes (unofficial strikes called in response to mistreatment of a co-worker).
Because slowdowns, mass pickets and sit down and wildcat strikes are all illegal under the Taft Hartley Act, American unions face steep fines for engaging in them. In 2011, if a worker is bullied, harassed or illegally fired by an employer, his only option is to file a grievance through the National Labor Relations Board, a process that can drag out for months or years. Because there are no real sanctions against employers, workplace bullying and harassment are incredibly common in the US . Moreover the stress of trying to work in a hostile environment is so enormous that most workers targeted in this way are forced to quit or take unpaid leave while waiting for their grievance to be heard.
Other Taft Hartley provisions that restrict labor rights:
- Taft Hartley authorizes states to enact right-to-work laws outlawing collective bargaining agreements that make union membership a condition of employment. Such laws are virtually unheard of in other countries, as they permit "free-rider" workers to enjoy the hard won benefits of union membership (wages and benefits are always better in a union company) without joining the union or paying dues.
- Taft Hartley excludes supervisors and independent contractors as employees for purposes of union membership. This has allowed companies to arbitrarily designate thousands of employees as independent contractors and/or supervisors and thus make them ineligible for union membership.
- Taft Hartley allows the President to obtain an 80 day court ordered injunction to halt a strike, allowing the employer sufficient time to recruit scabs to replace striking workers.
- Taft Hartley establishes the right of management to campaign against union membership (often incorporating coercive scare tactics) during a unionizing drive. This is in marked contrast to European countries, where employers (who always have an unfair advantage) are required to maintain a neutral stance towards union organizing.
- Taft Hartley allows the employer to petition for a union certification election and/or decertification election. Similar laws are also unheard of in Europe . Management frequently uses this provision to force a premature certification vote, before workers have had a full discussion of the pros and cons of union membership.
- Taft Hartley prohibits secondary boycotts directed against neutral companies to pressure employers who are refusing to negotiate. Prior to 1947, this was one of organized labor's most potent tools.
- Taft Hartley allows employers to delay union certification by demanding National Labor Relations Board hearings on key matters of dispute (such as what constitutes a bargaining unit). Management often uses the time to coerce individual workers to vote against the union.
- Taft Hartley establishes heavy penalties against unions who violate the Act and negligible penalties for employer violations. This tends to make employer violations of labor rights (e.g. illegal firing of labor supporters during organizing drives) routine.
- (Prior to 1965) Taft Hartley required all union leaders to sign an anti-communist pledge. Prior to its 1965 repeal, this led to massive red-baiting in the union movement, with the result that the most militant union members were either expelled or forced out.
The Destruction of US Unions
The effect of the 1947 Taft Hartley Act on union membership was almost immediate. In 1946 the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had 6.3 million members. By 1954, when it merged with the AFL, this number was 4.6 million. This steady drop continued. In 1954 34.7% of American workers belonged to a union. By 2010, this had dropped to 11.9% (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm).
There are obviously several other factors responsible for the decline of unions in the US :