Organized labor is pinning hopes on an effort to reform federal labor law to help stem a decline in union membership, which has dropped to under 12% of the private-sector work force, from 35% in the mid-1950s.
Unions are weaker today than at any time since adoption of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, but officials say they hope that the Clinton Administration will push for new laws that will help their organizing efforts.
Union officials say they are encouraged by President Clinton’s appointment of Stanford law professor William Gould to head the National Labor Relations Board. Among other proposals, Gould has suggested that if a minority of workers in a plant vote for union representation, that minority should be able to establish a bargaining unit. Under current rules, union representation can take place only if a majority of the workers vote for it.
BACKGROUND: The massive union-organizing drives of the 1930s were aided by the passage of federal labor laws that ensured unions access to workers and established federal oversight of representation elections. By the 1960s, employers began counterattacking with the help of attorneys who discovered ways to unhinge organizing campaigns. In some cases, companies found they could fire pro-union workers and mount intimidating anti-union campaigns yet suffer relatively few penalties.
After Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected President, one of the most intensive grass-roots campaign ever waged by labor pushed tougher legislation against such practices through the House in 1977.
The package was killed by a five-week filibuster led by Republican senators. That ended serious efforts at labor law reform until Clinton’s election.
PROPOSALS: The current effort does not match the 1977 campaign, but with some exceptions, the proposals are similar to those proposed 16 years ago. If the reforms are enacted this time, they will be the first major revisions of basic labor laws since the passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959.
The unions want increased penalties against violators of labor law. They also want to speed cases through the NLRB in order to prevent repeated delays that can allow employers to intensify their fights against union representation.
One proposal would require that a representation election must be conducted within 30 days of the workers’ petition for a vote. Another would grant immediate recognition of the union if more than 50% of the workers sign cards saying they wanted a union.
Even after a union wins an election, a contract agreement can take years to achieve. Nearly 40% of unions never receive a first contract after winning an election. Employers who do not bargain “in good faith” violate current statutes, but enforcement penalties are minimal. Unions want legislation requiring first contracts to be submitted to binding arbitration if negotiations stall.
Gould and others are also calling for a bill that would give unions easier access to workers on an employer’s property during organizing campaigns.
OUTLOOK: The outlook for passage of any of the measures is unclear. A bill has already passed the House outlawing the permanent replacement of strikers, but the GOP is threatening a filibuster to block it in the Senate.