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Matt Singer on January 8, 2007 - 10:54am
Monday, January 08, 2007
Freedom to Form Unions Conference Call
On Thursday, January 11th at 4pm EST, the Progressive States Network will be sponsoring a conference call for legislators and advocates interested in discussing in more depth the policy options for state action in strengthening the freedom to form labor unions. The call will be cosponsored by the National Labor Caucus of State Legislators (NLC).
In Today's Dispatch:
Protecting the Freedom to Form Labor Unions
The past thirty years have seen a marked decline in job quality for a substantial portion of the U.S. workforce: stagnant wages, shrinking health benefits and less job security. While a number of factors explain this decline, there is little question that the decline in the strength of labor unions in the US has played a major role.
In the post-World War II period, union membership in the United States has fallen from one in every three workers to about one in eight. While the federal government has the major role in regulating labor unions, reversing this decline in the freedom by workers to form unions has also become a major focus for state legislators concerned about raising wage standards in their states.
What States Can Do: While courts have occasionally restricted state power in this area, a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals, Chamber of Commerce v. Lockyer, has signalled that states have more room for action to protect workers rights than opponents have tried to argue. After California enacted AB 1889 in 2000 that prohibited companies receiving state funds from misusing that money to undermine the freedom of their employees to form unions, the state Chamber of Commerce and other groups blocked implementation of the law in the courts for years. But last September, a full panel of the Court of Appeals ruled that states had full authority to control misuse of public funds that undermines labor rights.
As this Dispatch will detail, this decision adds to a range of other policy tools that states and local governments are using to strengthen employees' freedom to form unions. These tools include:
The Dispatch will also highlight how workers and regional economies would benefit from strengthening worker freedom to form unions.
Protecting Public Employees and Workers on Public Contracts
One clear way for states to act is to use their control of public money to make sure workers directly employed by state governments or those working for employers receiving public contracts have their freedom to form unions protected.
States pay hundreds of billions of dollars to their own employees and to government contractors-- and they can make sure that those dollars expand worker freedoms rather than undermine them.
Protecting Workers with Little Protection under Federal Law
Many categories of private sector workers, including farmworkers, domestic workers, and independent contractors are excluded altogether from protection under federal labor laws, so states have the power to extend union protection to these employees. An important new reform in a number of states is extending labor rights to workers like child care and home health care workers, who are often treated as independent contractors without union protection.
Along with protecting such excluded employees, states like New York (see Sec. 592) allow all striking employees to qualify for unemployment benefits, while others like Illinois grant such benefits when employers lockout employees during a labor dispute -- key reforms to give employees struggling to assert their rights a chance.
Expanding Free Speech in the Workplace
State laws that protect workers from retaliation for speech in the workplace or strengthen their ability to talk to other employees and the public help encourage them to work collectively to raise their wages and improve working conditions:
Some states and local governments are also reclaiming lost civic space by opening up malls and other large retail store areas for free speech activities. These measures, plus others that give workers advocates more access to employer property, help increase employee education about their rights to form unions:
Free speech is the core of the freedom needed to form a union, so any state steps to protect such free speech can only strengthen labor rights.
Strengthening Unions Strengthens Local Economies
The reason states should take these policy steps is that strengthening the freedom of workers to form unions can play an important role in raising wages and actually improving regional economic performance. Despite myths that unions undermine the economy, studies show that unions benefit not only the unionized workers themselves, but other workers in the region and the overall economy.
Higher Wages for Union Workers: It's well known that union workers make significantly more than non-union workers overall. With benefits and wages, unionized workers are estimated to make 27% to 32% more than non-union workers in similar jobs.
Unions Reduce Wage Inequality: Women in unions make more than men in non-union jobs, while not only do African American union members earn 31 percent more than their nonunion counterparts, they make as much as whites in nonunion jobs. Latinos have the largest union premium of any group, with Latino union workers making 50% more in wages than their non-union counterparts.
Increasing Wages for Non-Union Workers: Strengthening unions also increases pay and benefits for non-union workers by setting a pay standard for nonunion employers to follow. The Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that has surveyed a range of studies done in this area, estimates that in industries where at least 25% of the workers are unionized, non-union workers with high school degrees see a 5% increase in wages compared to nonunion workers in completely non-union industries.
Unions Raise Incomes and Tax Revenues in Heavily Unionized States: States with stronger unions have higher wages for their residents. A survey comparing wages over fifty years found that states with a high percentage of unions versus those with low union density had systematically higher wages. And because workers in non-union jobs use more public benefits than workers in union jobs, strengthening unions eases the burden on state and local governments of providing health care and other social services to the working poor.
If states are going to end the wage stagnation of the last few decades, taking steps to strengthen the freedom of workers to form unions has to be front and center in those efforts. And the result will be not just greater dignity for the workers themselves, but a stronger local economy and fewer workers needing public benefits just to survive.
Protecting the Freedom to Form Unions
Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Changes in Employees' Health Insurance Coverage, 2001-2005
Pew Research Center, Public Says American Work Life Is Worsening
US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Chamber of Commerce v. Lockyer (2006)
Protecting Public Employees and Workers on Govt. Contracts
NCSL, Fair Share Statutes
California's AB 1889, Statute preventing misuse of state funds
State Building & Construction Trade Council, Project Labor Agreements
Protecting Employees with Few Federal Protections
Dollars and Sense, Victories for Home Health Care Workers
Washington State Initiative 775 granted collective bargaining rights to home health care workers.
New York "Domestic Workers Bill of Rights", A2804
Expanding Free Speech in the Workplace
CA Sec. 1101, preventing employment discrimination based on political beliefs
Whistleblowers.org, Protection For Private Sector Employee Whistleblowers
§20900 of the CA Agricultural Labor Relations, Solicitation by Non-Employee Organizers regulations
Hartford Courant, New Rule Makes Hartford Hub of Wal-Mart Debate, and Hartford Ordinance, Access to retail establishments located on city-affiliated property
Eye on the Right
Polling of workers shows many Americans deeply dissatisfied with their work life and wanting some protection of their basic rights as workers through a labor union. Why aren't unions more widespread? A big piece of it is the giant network of anti-union outfits that is extremely well-funded and coordinated. These organizations do everything from publicly attack unions in order to undermine their appeal to work politically to pressure politicians to make unionization more difficult. That's why workers report that intimidation by management is a real problem -- all the more reason for state governments to take action to protect workers' right to organize.
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
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