President Obama Won't Revive Unions

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The long decline in union membership in this country is a result--so the argument from union leaders goes--of a sustained Washington assault on organizing rights that began with Ronald Reagan’s presidency and has continued mostly unabated since them.

Never mind that global competition has made some unionized industries uncompetitive, or that most working Americans, polls show, wouldn’t join a union today if they had the option. And ignore the fact that the decline in union rolls predates Darth Reagan. It’s those darn anti-union politicians and their alliances with big business that have suffocated the U.S. labor movement.

Perhaps one reason union leaders believe this, though it’s so contrary to the facts, is because their opponents in corporate boardrooms seem to believe it, too. How else to explain the absolute frenzy in management circles about labor issues at the hands of a prospective Obama administration? Ever since Obama’s nomination became assured, business groups and corporate managers have been painting doomsday scenarios in whispered meetings and off-the-record talks with reporters and columnists. They’re worried about a host of labor initiatives that might become a reality, from legislative changes that would make it easier for disabled workers to sue employers to a bill that would reclassify many supervisors as union members.

But what worries management most of all is a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Obama that would give unions the right to organize workers without a secret election--the inaccurately named Employee Free Choice Act. The legislation, previously discussed mostly at union rallies and in Congressional hearings, burst onto the presidential campaign when the Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that Wal-Mart has been warning its store managers and supervisors that a Democratic victory in November would assure passage of the bill, which allows labor to declare victory in a union drive merely by garnering the signatures of more than half of employees, rather than submitting to a contested election in which the results are determined by secret ballot.

I can understand why businesses in some industries that are more heavily unionized than others—like Cintas, the large uniform supplier, for instance—might aggressively lobby against such legislation. But it’s worth noting that the long decline in union participation in this country isn’t about to be reversed by a few federal laws. Indeed, despite a lack of success in Washington promoting card-check legislation, labor has been winning legislative victories for years at the state and local level, where they’ve been able to pass bushels of labor-friendly laws which nonetheless have had no discernable impact on their membership.

Today, for instance, some 32 states have so-called prevailing wage laws that require companies in certain industries that do business with government, especially construction firms, to pay their workers essentially what union members make. These laws are aimed at making it uncompetitive for government to hire non-union shops, thereby slowing their rise. Some of these laws can be quite elaborate and specific. Connecticut, for instance, publishes tables listing the required rate of pay for hundreds of jobs covered by prevailing wage, with pay rates varying by region. And some of these laws have been expanded over the years to encompass just about every service that government contracts for, including leases on stores in government-owned airports or agreements with maintenance firms that clean government buildings.

Sympathetic legislators have also come up with new wrinkles as they’ve expanded wage laws. In more than 100 localities, unions and their allies have passed so-called ‘living wage’ laws that are like prevailing wage on steroids. Though nominally meant to give workers a ‘living wage,’ the laws are often explicitly aimed at undercutting nonunion shops. In some places, these laws even require companies to abide by ‘neutrality agreements’ in labor negotiations, meaning that they cannot contest organizing drives. Gradually labor’s legislative allies have extended these laws to include anything government touches, even forcing businesses that receive tax-exempt financing provided by government, as in public/private partnerships, for instance, to abide by a host of union-friendly guidelines.

The results of these hundreds of laws and backdoor deals are hardly impressive. Take construction, the one industry most affected by such laws—and an industry that, unlike manufacturing, can’t be outsourced overseas. Even though government controls about 25 percent of all construction in the country, in the last 30 years, according to research by economists David Macpherson and Barry Hirsch, unionization in the construction industry has declined by nearly two-thirds to just 14 percent of all workers, from 38 percent. The decline has been relentless through Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.

States with the friendliest and most pro-union legislation, including elaborate prevailing wage laws, haven’t fared very well. In California, which not only has some of the most detailed statewide laws protecting unions as well as dozens of local ordinances in left-leaning municipalities, the portion of the construction industry that’s unionized has slumped in 25 years to 17 percent from 41 percent. In New Jersey, where union-friendly legislators have made it a felony for a company to violate prevailing wage laws (in most states it’s a civil violation publishable by fines), union rates in construction are down to 23 percent of all workers, from 38 percent.

Broader statistics on unionization in all industries are even bleaker, and nationally, of course, just 7.5 percent of all private sector workers now belong to unions.

Even so, labor leaders and their allies hold out hope that an Obama-led legislative drive would revive not only unions, but the entire Left in this country. Nothing illustrates the giddiness of these folks more than an unintentionally hilarious pro-union piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled How the Employee Free Choice Act Would Help Colleges, which observes that “the labor movement is still the most effective political force for electing liberal candidates” and that pro-labor politicians would also support “the environment; the civil rights of women, homosexuals, and minority groups…universal health insurance…affordable housing…and funds for public schools and higher education.” Never has so much been riding on one simple bill.

I can certainly understand why critics object to the federal check card legislation. If this bill passes, I sympathize with workers who don’t want their companies unionized, because they will come under unprecedented pressure once they are deprived of the right to a secret ballot. Indeed, one study of companies that willingly agreed not to oppose union organizing efforts found that more than half of all labor campaigns failed anyway. (Imagine having no opposition and still batting less than .500). However, the study also found that when labor negotiated not only neutrality, but also to have the process determined by signature cards rather than a secret vote, nearly 80 percent of campaigns were successful. Deprived of a secret vote, in other words, some workers went along with the union when they apparently wouldn’t otherwise.

But beyond the injustice to workers and the headache it will certainly cause a few management teams, Obama’s support of card check and other union friendly legislation will mostly accomplish one thing: ensuring that he gets the maximum campaign effort out of organized labor, which has pledged some $100 million to see him elected.

On the other hand, a more union-friendly attitude in Washington will have little impact on the historical trends undercutting organized labor in this country, because in most American workplaces these days, unionization isn’t even an issue. A union movement which grew in response to the industrial revolution and succeeded because laborers were fighting for basic rights is simply no longer relevant to the vast majority of today’s workers. And the huge chunk of their members’ dues that labor leaders now spend supporting Left-wing causes, ranging from environmentalism to subsidized housing to anti-war efforts, has made labor’s message less palatable even to employees in industries still prone to unionization.

Faced with a flood of pro-union sentiment from Washington, most workers will simply yawn and say, that’s change we can do without.

Steven Malanga is an editor for RealClearMarkets and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

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