Gompersonian Organizational Principles: The Summer of Labor Discontent

By Deitsch, Clarence R.; Dilts, David A. | Labor Law Journal, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Gompersonian Organizational Principles: The Summer of Labor Discontent


Deitsch, Clarence R., Dilts, David A., Labor Law Journal


Economically, yon are unsound; socially, you are wrong; and industrially, you are an impossibility.

Samuel Gompers, 1903(1)

Scholars have long been interested in workers' motivations for unionization. "Voice" has been identified as a powerful determinant of worker motivation for forming and joining labor organizations. An important portion of voice is having an ability to be represented in the disciplinary and grievance procedures. The Courts and the NLRB have extended representational rights during the disciplinary process to nonunion employees. Through public policy, "voice" considerations have been given to nonunion employees that were once reserved to union employees through the "Weingarten" decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. This paper examines the on-again, off-again history of the extension of Weingarten rights to nonunion employees and the implication for "voice" in workers' motivations to support unions.

FRACTIONALIZATION OF ORGANIZED LABOR

Since the 1955 Accord between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, union membership has declined from its high water mark of 33 percent of the labor force to the current 12.5 percent.2 As noted by Richard B. Freeman, there has occurred an effective deunionization of the U.S. labor force.3 This shrinkage has continued virtually unabated over the last fifty years to the point of federation implosion during the Summer of 2005. In the short span of two months, five unions representing in excess of 5.7 million workers severed ties with the AFL-CIO, choosing instead to join the rival Change to Win Coalition formed a short time earlier.4 These unions, the 1.3 million member Teamsters union, the 1.8 million member Service Employees International Union, the 1.4 million member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the 450,000 member UNITE/HERE Union, and the 800,000 member Laborers' International Union of North America, joined the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, who had left the AFL-CIO in 2001, and the United Farm Workers Union, which remains affiliated with the AFL-CIO.5

The leaders of the dissident unions have long been critical of AFL-CIO President John S. Sweeney's leadership, arguing that he should have focused more resources on organizing new members rather than for political purposes. As Laborers' International Union President Richard Greer succinctly noted:

We believe that the priority should be in organizing and in reaching out to the more than 90% of workers in the private sector who don't have unions. ... We just have a difference in opinion in what direction we should go in.6

Union discontent is more than somewhat reminiscent of Samuel Gompers' strident remarks to the Socialists gathered at the 1903 American Federation of Labor Convention quoted at the outset of this article.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

Factors promoting and those impeding trade union growth have piqued the interest of scholars for almost a century. Professor Dunlop sought a theoretical framework to explain the development and spread of unionism.7 Professors Orley Ashenfelter and John H. Pencavel expanded Dunlop's "total environment" framework, identifying five factors determinant of trade union growth, namely: the economic environment (i.e., the benefits and costs stemming from union membership), the social environment (i.e., an index of societal disenchantment and discontent), the "engineering" environment (i.e., diminishing returns to a given intensity of recruiting effort/expenditure of resources) and the political/legal environment (i.e., whether the body of law governing labor relations is sympathetic or hostile to union goals and activities.)8 Neuman and Rissman changed tack somewhat in asking Where Have All the Union Members Gone?9 identifying "the provision of certain social welfare benefits by government" as substituting for those privately provided by unions, "thereby reducing the attractiveness of union membership.

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