Commentary | Unions and Labor Standards

The declining rights of workers

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


The declining rights of workers

By  Ross Eisenbrey 

What you don’t know actually can hurt you. The Bush administration’s newest labor law rulings probably aren’t on your radar screen, but they should be. They promise to damage the economic prospects of middle and working class Americans for decades to come.

The National Labor Relations Act declares that it is our national policy to reduce the inequality of bargaining power between corporations and employees “by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization and designation of representatives of their own choosing.”

But you’d never recognize this policy in the Bush-dominated National Labor Relations Board’s newest decisions, which will deny millions of workers the right to designate their own representatives and engage in collective bargaining.

In the key case, Oakwood Healthcare, the board classified a dozen nurses as nonemployee supervisors and kicked them out of their union, which was bad enough. But it also told the hospital how to go about reclassifying another 112 nurses as supervisors, merely by making minor scheduling changes.

By putting “rotating charge nurses” on a regular schedule where they would be the charge nurse as seldom as one shift every two weeks, the hospital could turn two-thirds of its staff nurses into supervisors, leaving fewer than 60 out of 180 nurses free to join the union. As Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert jokingly suggested, the government thinks the answer to labor-management harmony is to make everyone a supervisor — or at least to call everyone a supervisor.

Everything about this one-sided legal decision is wrong, starting with the amendment to the act that the board was interpreting.

The provision in question denies supervisors the right to belong to a union or to have any of the protections of the labor law. Why? Because back in 1947 Congress thought unions had too much power and that keeping supervisors out of unions would weaken them and change the balance of power between management and labor.

Unfortunately, it worked. Partly because of the 1947 amendments, but also because of globalization and other economic and political changes, unions have far less power today than they did at the end of World War II. Most notably, a far smaller share of the workforce has union representation than at the peak of unions’ power and influence.

In 1948, 31 percent of the workforce was unionized, versus 12.5 percent today. As unionization has declined, so has worker bargaining power. The incomes of families in the middle fifth have fallen from a 17.4 percent share of the economy in 1950 to 15.3 percent in 2004. That 2-percent loss adds up to more than $119 billion in lost income, a whopping $7,500 per family.

The middle-class squeeze is pinching harder and harder as families try to stretch stagnant incomes to cover ever more expensive housing, health care, education and energy costs.

No single change would make a more lasting difference in their standard of living than a healthier, stronger labor movement. Even with unionization at record lows, union workers earn, on average, nearly 15 percent more than nonunion workers in the same occupations. The union advantage is much greater for some groups, such as Hispanic men, who earn 25 percent more when they belong to unions.

Unions lifted middle-class wages on their broad shoulders for most of the 20th century, but as they shrink in size and strength, so does the ability of average Americans to earn a fair share of our nation’s wealth and income.

When government intervenes to deny union rights to millions of workers, as in Oakwood and other recent cases, it is choosing to tilt the balance of power ever further against the average family.

Removing 800,000 nurses from the labor law’s protections — and perhaps 8 million employees in all — will seriously weaken union power and leave most workers with even less leverage to win better pay and working conditions.

Congress set this pendulum swinging back in 1947. It’s time for Congress to take another look at the balance of power and find ways to restore the best means we have for achieving a fair sharing of profits and income — collective bargaining and employees’ full freedom of association and self-organization.

Ross Eisenbrey is vice president and the director of Policy at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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