Unions Still Needed for Workers' Protection

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), April 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

Unions Still Needed for Workers' Protection


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Bob Bussel For The Register-Guard

It is tempting to dismiss Don Tykeson's March 29 guest viewpoint opposing the Employee Free Choice Act, which would reform the National Labor Relations Act and make it easier for workers to form unions, as alarmist propaganda that reflects an owner-investor's obvious economic interest in avoiding unionization. However, several of Tykeson's claims deserve special attention.

His assertion that unions are no longer necessary is a mantra that employers and their allies have chanted over the past three decades, and unfortunately, one that has gained a measure of acceptance. And his superficial discussion of the intentions behind labor law ignores the historical context needed to fully understand the social benefits of collective bargaining and the impetus behind the current effort to restore workers' right to organize.

Enacted in 1935 during the Great Depression, the National Labor Relations Act reflected important public policy priorities that still resonate today. Its authors believed that by denying workers "full freedom of association" and by refusing to engage in collective bargaining, employers had created an "inequality of bargaining power" that depressed wages and left workers at the mercy of management.

By supporting workers' right to organize and encouraging collective bargaining, sponsors of the act aimed to democratize labor-management relations, increase workers' purchasing power, and stimulate the economy (yes, unionization was an integral part of the New Deal's "stimulus package"). As a result of this legislation, workers felt secure in exercising their right to organize, unions devoted resources to helping them do so, and collective bargaining gained social acceptance.

For nearly three decades following the passage of the NLRA, collective bargaining largely fulfilled legislators' and workers' hopes. Because government in the United States does not provide an extensive social safety net, it was through collective bargaining that many workers gained essential benefits such as health insurance, pensions, vacations and sick days. These benefits rippled through the economy as numerous nonunion firms improved conditions to keep pace with their unionized competitors.

Collective bargaining helped create what Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has called "one of the great achievements of the last century: the `family wage,' which allowed the vast majority of workers to provide their families with a decent living and the parental time to give their children a decent upbringing." As Dionne reminds us, this was accomplished largely by "economic growth, social legislation, agitation and unionization," not, as Tykeon suggests, through the benevolence of employers, who often fought these efforts at every turn. …

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