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Minority unionism is U.S. model

Fri, Sep 7, 2012

On Labor Day 2012, the status of the U.S. trade union movement remains problematic. Overall union density registers at 11.8 percent with private sector union density measuring 6.9 percent. Such dismal figures have not been seen since the early 1930s. Additionally, strike rates are at all-time lows and those strikes conducted by unions rarely result in union victories. Moreover, unions continue to experience major difficulties in recruiting new members through traditional organizing campaigns due to vehement employer opposition, as evidenced by the high level of illegal activity that companies engage in to prevent unionization.

Declining union density has brought a sense of urgency to the US trade union movement, forcing unions to explore ways to become more creative in organizing, including the formation of labor-community alliances to boost union membership. But one ad-ditional option that should be strongly considered for US labor’s revitalization is members-only or minority unionism that appears to be a potential legal alternative to majority unionism under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Minority unions represent only those employees who have chosen to join the organizations while majority unions have attained exclusive rep-resentation for all bargaining unit employees through winning certification elections.

Minority unionism flourished in the United States from 1935 to 1938. While the successful campaign to organize the steel industry in 1936-1937 resulted in half of the first agreements negotiated being members-only contracts, Charles Morris’ The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace (2005), contends that minority unionism can be utilized in the early 21st century to help resolve labor’s organizing conundrum. While the NLRA specifies that employers are legally obligated to negotiate with a union that has achieved majority support of all bargaining unit employees, as traditionally demonstrated through a union certification election, Morris argues that, under the NLRA…

What would be the benefits of minority unionism for employees? Negotiating by members-only unions would markedly transform the union organizing process. Under such a brand of unionism, employees would be able to establish a labor organization at the work site as soon as they desired rather than having to engage in an organizing drive that could be dragged out for months due to employer intransigence. Employers would be less likely to hire union-busting consultants to prevent unions from forming because unions would not have to obtain a simple majority of certification election votes to be able to bargain with employers. Additionally, a union that fails to win the certification election would not be eliminated from the workplace because it still would be able to represent and negotiate for its members. Moreover, minority unionism would minimize the hostility that often occurs in organizing drives between pro- and anti-union employees. Supportive employees could join the union and have it represent them while those opposed would not be required to affiliate or have the union collectively bargain for them.

Members-only unionism will also alter the union’s focus in the workplace. Unions will have to obtain members, not just authorization cards for the conducting of certification elections. Additionally, employees who become union members will be required to pay dues and to assume active roles in union governance. Since minority unions will lack exclusive representation, there could be several labor organizations in the workplace competing for members. This would require each union to bargain the best contracts possible and to effectively administer them in order to retain their memberships and to win over nonunion employees.

The first steps towards attaining minority unionism occurred in 2007 when the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers and five other unnamed unions filed a rulemaking petition requesting that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) invoke members-only unionism. Since 2007, the NLRB has received at least three more requests asking that minority unionism be implemented which includes a 2007 letter signed by 25 labor law professors, a 2008 petition filed by additional unions and a 2010 amicus brief supported by several dozen academics. Although the NLRB has retained the status quo, with President Barack Obama’s recent pro-labor NLRB appointments, and depending on the outcome of the 2012 elections, the NLRB may be willing to engage in more rulemaking including the implementation of minority unionism.

Unions should not wait, however, for an NLRB decision to begin to organize minority unions. The question before the NLRB is whether employers are compelled to recognize members-only bargaining. Since US labor law permits employers to voluntarily recognize minority unions, the trade union movement should experiment with organizing members-only unions in targeted workplaces. Such an approach might result in an odd employer here or there recognizing a minority union. But even if this fails to occur, this proactive approach to union formation might result in unions acquiring better reputations which could encourage more employees to support unions in traditional organizing campaigns. This, in and of itself, would ultimately be a positive development for US labor.

Victor Devintaz, StreetWise Contributor

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