The Wall Street Journal editorial board suggested that the decline in union membership over the last 30 years is due to lack of employee interest, but ignored the impact of aggressively anti-labor "right-to-work" laws and a string of pro-business Supreme Court decisions.
The WSJ claimed that the overall decrease in union membership is indicative of the irrelevance of unionism in the modern workplace. From the September 16 editorial:
The promise of joining a union has always been that it will deliver better pay, benefits and job security. That proposition long ago stopped being true for most workers, and now even the AFL-CIO is tacitly admitting its loss of relevance in the private American workplace. At last week's annual convention in Los Angeles, labor delegates voted to expand AFL-CIO membership, inviting even non-union members to join their flagging consortium.
[A]s dues-paying membership declines, the AFL-CIO is essentially trying to attract the equivalent of donations from the larger public. Send in whatever "dues" payments the AFL-CIO requires for membership, and in return you get--what exactly? At least if you donate during one of those PBS pledge drives, you get a tote bag and maybe a CD of Yanni at the Acropolis. It isn't clear what non-union members will get for their cash, other than the pleasure of knowing they've helped AFL-CIO chief Rich Trumka stay in a better class of hotel. Will he throw in a T-shirt?
What the WSJ neglects to mention is a series of anti-union and pro-business Supreme Court decisions over the last 20 years that have drastically reduced union organizers' ability to communicate directly with workers, provided extra protection to employers who try to aggressively prevent unionization in the workplace, and have obstructed access to justice for victims of labor law abuses. These decisions have eroded unions' ability to engage in meaningful communication with potential members, protect themselves from illegal labor practices, and have generally contributed to the reduction in membership numbers.
Later this year, the Court will hear arguments in two cases that could potentially "put a dagger in organized labor" should Chief Justice John Roberts and the conservative majority continue its pro-business streak. The first, NLRB v. Noel Canning, deals with President Obama's authority to fill open positions on the National Labor Relations Board (the government agency that oversees union elections and hears cases involving unfair labor practices) while Congress is in recess. Obama filled the vacancies during a Senate break after "Republicans ... engaged in an unprecedented level of obstruction of [his] nominations[.]"
The second case, Mulhall v. UNITE HERE Local 355, questions the constitutionality of "organizing agreements," which allow unions and the employers they bargain with to establish rules prior to commencement of contract negotiations. Organizing agreements typically require employers to remain neutral during union organization drives, which The Atlantic described as "probably the most successful union organizing strategy of the last decade." They now face extinction if the Supreme Court agrees with the plaintiffs that such arrangements provide "things of value" to unions in violation of the law.
The WSJ avoids a discussion of the blow these cases could deliver to union membership, choosing instead to insist that modern employees simply aren't interested in joining.
The WSJ also suggested union dues are wasted, ignoring that a wave of aggressively anti-labor legislation has caused a severe financial strain on unions. Union membership has been significantly and negatively impacted by state-level "right-to-work" legislation. Anti-labor groups have managed to pass "right-to-work" laws in 22 states, which allow workers to refuse to pay union dues even if they work in a unionized workplace and enjoy all the benefits of unionization. The WSJ's ridiculous PBS analogy fails--nonmembers in unionized workplaces pay nothing and in return they get compulsory union representation at the bargaining table, not to mention free legal representation in the event of unfair labor practices or other workplace abuses.
Ultimately, the WSJ seems to be content in its decision to paint unions as workplace nuisances, even if it means ignoring the facts and the ramifications of the historically anti-labor Roberts court.
Photo by Flickr user Jobs With Justice