March 18, 2010

New economy, employer offensive challenge labor



Today, just when workers need the protection that organized labor can provide, the labor movement in the state and nation lies wounded, sputtering and gasping for air. 

In 2006, organized labor in Maine counted about 69,300 people in its ranks, representing about 12 percent of the work force. The private sector represented 5.3 percent of the total. 

Nationally, a reported 15,359,000 workers, or about 12 percent of the nonagricultural work force, were organized. Only 7.4 percent of the national total could be found in the private sector, a percentage that hovered around the organizational strength of labor a century ago.  

Among the factors that have contributed to organized labor's changing status are: the decline of smokestack industries and the emergence of the new economy; global competition; liberalized trade policies; offshore outsourcing; a new employer offensive against the labor movement, and the renaissance of classical liberal economic ideology via the Republican Party.

The pressure on organized labor is reflected by the rising demand by American business for flexibility in order to compete successfully in a global market. This has led to calls for changes in work rules, concessionary bargaining or the elimination of unions altogether. It is reflected also in the merger of labor organizations, the decline in the number of strikes, the increase in decertification elections and the willingness of employers to take a strike and employ replacement workers. 

Added to the mix of challenges are the rise of ''contingency workers'' and major demographic changes so pronounced that the white male is now the minority worker.


Organized labor also has had to contend with the new profession of anti-union consultants who labor to defuse the labor movement, along with a rise in employer violations of the National Labor Relations Act. 

By 1980, some 1,000 companies and 1,500 individuals were engaged in full- or part-time efforts to hobble the labor movement. Increasingly, workers were being illegally fired each year. The pattern reveals that in 25 percent of labor's campaigns to organize workers, employers have been charged with illegally firing workers. Every 23 minutes, a worker is fired or harassed for trying to organize. 

National Labor Relations Board decisions that awarded back pay to workers who were wrongly fired or disciplined by their employers counted a few hundred employees annually in the 1950s. But this figure spiraled upward to 6,000 a year in the late '60s, to about 20,000 a year beginning in the early 1990s. It now stands at more than 30,000 a year.  

Currently, 92 percent of private-sector employers require employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union views. Eighty percent require supervisors to attend training sessions that carry anti-union messages. Seventy-eight percent mandate supervisors to deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee, and 51 percent threaten to close a facility if the union should win an election.

A 2000 Human Rights Watch report, ''Unfair Advantage,'' said that ''workers' freedom of association is under sustained attack in the United States, and the government is often failing its responsibility under international human rights standards to deter such attacks and protect workers rights.'' 

More than half of the workers interviewed have said that they would prefer to join a union and engage in collective bargaining if they were not intimidated or threatened for doing so. 

Perhaps this is why, in some measure, 43 percent of human resource managers who were polled in 2005 said there is no concern about union activities at their companies, and 25 percent described the level of concern as ''low.'' Only 7 percent of the 557 human resource managers polled said there was a high level of concern. 


Ideological echoes of the anti-unionism of the past appeared to have reached a crescendo during the administrations of Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. 

Reagan identified organized labor as a special interest and appealed to the ''forgotten'' law-abiding citizens who worked hard, paid taxes, were angry over advances of minorities and ''welfare parasites'' and harbored latent strains of nationalism and patriotism. A measure of the success of such an appeal was reflected by the fact that a majority of white union members and their families cast their ballots for Reagan. 

Reagan's values regarding organized labor were dramatically revealed by his quick and decisive action against the Professional Air Traffic Controllers' Organization during its illegal work stoppage in 1981. The president's move stunned the labor movement, while it signaled to the employers of the nation that they had the green light to engage in an offensive against the labor movement. 

Reagan and members of his administration declared the strike to be illegal, described the strikers as outlaws, called for legal injunctions against the strikers and arrested, chained and imprisoned several leaders of the union. The president announced that the strikers would not be rehired for their positions or pardoned for their actions, and that the union would be decertified as a bargaining agent. 

Reagan succeeded in what The New York Times called the ''execution'' of PATCO through mass dismissals, contempt citations and the decertification of the union.


Reagan's appointment of Donald Dotson as chair of the National Labor Relations Board in 1984 offered telling evidence of ideological opposition against organized labor. Dotson preferred the deregulation of industrial relations, leaving the impression that the Wagner Act of 1935 was intended to promote positive relations between employers and employees, not unionism and collective bargaining. 

Dotson, who had been an attorney for management before coming to the board, publicly stated that ''collective bargaining means ... the destruction of individual freedom.'' The NLRB's new chief legal adviser was drawn from the intensely anti-union National Right to Work Committee. 

Such thinly veiled ideological hints strongly suggested that impartiality was not to be expected from the nation's leading protective arm of the collective rights of workers or from other Reagan appointees to labor-related agencies.

President George W. Bush outlined his view of labor early in his first administration when he expressed plans to issue four executive orders opposed by organized labor.

The orders made it easier for union workers to keep their dues from funding political campaigns; revoked the ''project labor agreement,'' which required contractors in federally financed projects to be unionized; dissolved the National Partnership Council created by President Clinton, which sought to encourage government agencies and unions to resolve their differences, and revoked a Clinton policy of job protection for employees of contractors for federal buildings when the contract was awarded to a different employer.

His animus toward labor can also be seen in the revocation of collective bargaining rights of Homeland Security workers and workers in the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (now called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency).

As well, he denied airport screeners freedom to choose a union; removed union representation for Department of Justice workers; supported employer efforts to use taxpayer money for anti-union campaigns; repealed the nation's first ergonomic standards, and pressured the Environmental Protection Agency to omit warnings about the hazards of air pollutants such as asbestos and smoke from fires.

The Bush National Labor Relations Board withdrew protection to graduate student employees, certain disabled workers and employees of temporary help agencies. (Millions of undocumented workers have no labor rights, either, since they can be fired at will by employers without penalty under a 2002 Supreme Court decision.)


In October 2006, the NLRB broadened the definition of ''supervisors'' when it ruled that millions of nurses exercise supervisory powers, which threatens to remove millions of workers' collective rights protections. The decision in the Oakwood Healthcare, Inc., case (one of three cases considered after the Supreme Court ruled in NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care) gave the green light to a broader definition of who is a supervisor. 

According to the Populist Progressive, ''With the new ruling, 40.6 million workers, or 28% of the workforce, will have no collective bargaining rights.  They include 8.5 million independent contractors, 5.5 million employees of small businesses, 18.8 million managers and supervisors (including 17.2 million first-line supervisors), 532,000 domestic workers, 357,000 agricultural workers and over 6.9 million federal, state and local government employees.'' 

In the immediate past, the Bush administration sought to suspend normal pay rates for thousands of construction workers to be employed in rebuilding the Gulf Coast following the destruction left in Katrina's path. Such action bypassed the provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act pertaining to wages paid on federal contracts. 

Most recently, the American Federation of Government Employees filed an appeal to the Supreme Court to stop an effort by the Bush administration to curb union rights in the Defense Department. Such is a partial glimpse of the litany of grievances that organized labor identifies with the current Republican administration and its unmistakable offensive against the labor movement.

It is little wonder that organized labor's arsenal of defense includes the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, first introduced in Congress in 2003. Its provisions require that employers recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards or petitions authorizing union representation; provide for mediation and arbitration of first contract disputes, and authorize stronger penalties for violation of the law when workers seek to form a union.  


Fissures within the labor movement -- such as a coalition of breakaway unions that formed Change to Win in 2005, as an alternative to the AFL-CIO -- may or may not exacerbate organized labor's difficulties. But no requiem for the labor movement is in order. In this new world of the post-industrial economy, Internet-driven elimination of man-made geographical boundaries and resurrection of classical economic ideas, organized labor truly faces major challenges. 

While reactionary forces and new circumstances have energized labor to organize and engage in political activity, its potential for growth may lie in organizing the spectrum of white-collar workers, the new casualties of a global economy and outsourcing. Clearly, not only manufacturing companies have moved overseas. The ability to digitally transmit volumes of information across the planet has caught the attention of companies in high-tech areas such as architecture, medical services, computer software and engineering and enticed them to send work abroad. 

Forester Research of Cambridge, Mass., projected that 3.5 million high-tech and service jobs will be lost to this nation by 2015. While the numbers may appear to be insignificant, the trend is not.

The sense of urgency triggered by the unbridled growth of capitalism that provided the primary impetus for the growth of organized labor may be returning. Not so much in the way of poor working conditions and workplace indignities (although these have not entirely disappeared), but in the form of rising economic dislocations and insecurities triggered by the global economy that increasingly reach the spectrum of white-collar workers. 

These workers, who may have viewed with indifference the movement of manufacturing abroad for a few decades, are themselves increasingly experiencing living on the edge of economic insecurity and unemployment. 

Their knowledge and skills, which are directly and increasingly linked to the creation of wealth and to increased productivity, can readily become obsolete or exported abroad. Economic anxieties that were once viewed exclusively as blue-collar phenomena now afflict these workers of the new economy, and experience may teach them that collective action to secure a measure of dignity, security and a greater share of the wealth they help to create is no longer a foreign idea that is beneath them.

There is no reason to believe that they will remain indifferent to their own sense of security and justice in this inexorable drift to the global economy.  The United Professionals, for example, organized in the fall of 2006, offers a small and immediate glimpse of efforts to alert those who had felt that they were immune to the economic gyrations of the new economy. 

By 2007, some 7,000 United Professionals members were convinced that they were no longer a species apart, one insulated against the new economic currents sweeping across the globe. Major changes in economic conditions have a way of preparing people to re-examine prevailing definitions and worldviews they have long held and associated with their personal success and security.  

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)