Where Are the Workers? Employees Are Losing Their Central Place in Union Organizing, but Card-Check Legislation Could Turn That Around

Article excerpt

One sparkling day about 10 years ago, I drove from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to deliver a talk at a nationwide staff retreat of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). I can't recall exactly what I talked about, but I remember distinctly whom I was talking to. The HERE staffers--there were about 70 of them--were all corporate researchers, most of them from HERE'S locals.

This was something new. For some time, locals in America's more vibrant unions had employed organizers, but no union I knew of--until that day--had embedded corporate researchers in their locals as well. The researchers I met that afternoon were preponderantly young and uniformly bright. But HERE's decision to create a cadre of corporate campaigners was based on the grimmest of facts: Traditional private-sector union organizing--signing up workers who want to join a union, winning a certification election conducted by the government, and securing a collective-bargaining agreement in negotiations with the employer--had become a dead-end.

I discovered that day in Santa Barbara that HERE had concluded there was not a single hotel that could be organized absent a campaign to bring so much financial, political, and community pressure on the employer that it would agree not to oppose unionization. The mere desire of workers to form a union no longer sufficed.

By the 1990s, 30 percent of American employers routinely discharged employees during organizing drives, 49 percent threatened workers with the prospect of closing up shop if they voted to go union, 91 percent compelled workers to attend one-on-one meetings with their supervisors, and many delayed certification elections interminably and refused to agree to a first contract even if the union was legally certified. Employer willingness to violate the terms of the National Labor Relations Act (and suffer the negligible penalties it imposed on them) rather than let their workers unionize had become the norm in American business.

Accordingly, the very act of organizing has gone through a sea change at the nation's better unions and has been all but abandoned by the rest. With employers delaying elections and unions avoiding them, the number of National Labor Relations Board-supervised elections has declined steadily for several decades and has dropped by 41 percent over the past decade alone. One factor not standing in the way of union elections is employees' desire to belong to a union, which has been increasing for the past 15 years. Recent polling shows that 53 percent of nonunion workers would like to have a unionized workplace.

The only option open to unions seeking to organize private-sector workers has been to reach agreements with employers that sidestep the NLRB process altogether. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the now-merged union of clothing and hotel workers (UNITE HERE), the Teamsters, and a few others continue their work to build union support among rank-and-filers but now supplement that work by waging so-called "corporate campaigns," bringing financial or political pressure on corporate employers to compel them to not oppose unionization efforts. Beginning in the 1980s, these unions created corporate-strategy offices. They began asking elected officials to devise laws and rules that helped friendly employers and hurt union-busters. And they hired community organizers to build support for unionizing campaigns among churches and other potential allies.

Of necessity, many of these campaigns are conducted in arenas far removed from the workplaces the unions seek to organize. Some require the intense involvement of the workers seeking union status. Some don't. What sometimes emerges is a kind of top-down, "let's make a deal" unionism that results in an agreement covering workers who may not even have been aware that the unionization campaign was under way. …