More Perfect Unions: The Need for New Labor Laws

By Sinyai, Clayton | Commonweal, March 27, 2009 | Go to article overview

More Perfect Unions: The Need for New Labor Laws


Sinyai, Clayton, Commonweal


In 1934, as a Senate committee debated a measure to protect the right of workers to form unions, the U.S. Catholic bishops weighed in on the debate. John Burke, CSP, speaking on behalf of the bishops' Administrative Committee, addressed a letter to the senators:

  The worker's right to form labor unions and to bargain collectively
  is as much his right as the right to participate through delegated
  representatives in the making of laws which regulate his civic
  conduct. Both are inherent rights. The worker can exercise his God-
  given faculty of freedom and properly order his life in preparation
  for eternity only through a system which permits him freely to choose
  his representatives in industry.

There was nothing particularly novel about the principles Burke expressed. His letter was submitted along with the text of Quadragesimo anno ("the fortieth year"), Pope Pius XI's 1931 social encyclical, which commended the role of trade unions in social life. The title of that encyclical referred to the fortieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's elegant Rerum novarum (1891), the foundational text of Catholic social thought in the modern age. Reflecting on how the modern economy too often allows the rich and powerful an opportunity to exploit working people, Leo took comfort in the proliferation of "workingmen's unions" that helped ameliorate labor conditions. "There are not a few associations of this nature," the pope observed, "but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient."

Yet such associations are dwindling in the United States--falling from approximately 35 percent of private-sector wage earners in the decades after World War II to less than 10 percent today. Why? In large measure, unions have declined because of employers' illegal actions to obstruct the workers' right to organize.

The National Labor Relations Act--or the Wagner Act--was signed in 1935 to give workers an orderly and safe method to determine whether they wanted to negotiate with their employers collectively, as a union, or individually. Now organized workers enjoy numerous advantages over their nonunion counterparts: a written contract that secures fair and equitable treatment and prevents favoritism; a collective voice in the workplace; and, not least of all, superior wages and benefits. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that American union members earned an average annual salary of about $45,000--hardly a princely sum, but a solid 25 percent more than what nonunion workers earn. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the Wagner Act, millions of American workers rushed to form unions.

But the Wagner Act relied almost entirely on moral suasion for its effect. It was probably too much to expect that reverence for the law would restrain employers when the penalties for violating the act were so minor--and the rewards so great. Wagner was further weakened by a set of postwar amendments known as the Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, curtailed the ability of unions to strike and made it easier for employers to meddle in employees' decisions about organizing. Since unionization could cost corporations thousands of dollars per year, an industry of "union avoidance" experts soon blossomed. They advised:

* Firing union supporters early, because it is the best way to intimidate workers into abandoning an organizing campaign. (In Fiscal Year 2007 the U.S. National Labor Relations Board awarded back pay to 29,559 workers in such cases.) The action is flagrantly illegal, but it usually works. And it's a relative bargain when compared to the potential cost of collective bargaining.

* If workers produce a stack of authorization cards (which authorize a representative to bargain on their behalf) indicating that most of them want to unionize, employers should demand an NLRB-supervised election. …

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