If labor unions want to survive, they must listen to workers

The U.S. labor movement is facing a crisis of dwindling membership and hitching its hopes for survival on Congress. But even if lawmakers grant unions exactly what they want, reversing the movement’s slide might prove impossible. 

Why? Because the labor movement’s interests are increasingly at odds with those of workers. Take, for example, its desire to rewrite workplace laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, to push more people into joining unions — and in some cases to give workers no choice but to join. Many workers value their freedom to choose whether to belong to a union or not and will resent that being taken away.

Currently, only 10.8 percent of the American workforce is unionized. That’s almost half what it was when the Labor Department first started tracking the figure in 1983 and far below the union movement’s 1950s heyday, when (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) about a third of all workers were unionized.

The movement has been struggling for years to reverse this decline. Former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney — who led the organization from 1995 to 2009 — decided that one major problem was that unions fell out of the habit of recruiting new members. The movement had become dependent on long-unionized industries in which existing contracts required new workers to join. As the economy changed and new businesses emerged, such as those in Silicon Valley or big box retailers like Walmart, the labor movement fell behind in recruiting those workers.

By the time he stepped down, Sweeney had moved the AFL-CIO to devoting at least 30 percent of its resources to ground-level organizing. His successor Richard Trumka reversed that, deciding instead to focus on politics. Under Trumka, the organizing budget fell to just 10 percent; during his 12-year tenure it spent about $1 billion of its members’ dues money to elect a labor-friendly Congress. When Trumka unexpectedly passed away this summer, the federation’s former secretary-treasurer Liz Schuler was named as his successor. Schuler, who oversaw the budget during Trumka’s tenure, has given little indication that she’ll break from Trumka’s politics-centered approach.

Yet relying on politics hasn’t been successful so far. Consider two recent efforts. During the Obama administration, unions pushed for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have mostly eliminated secret-ballot workplace elections. That legislation, however, died in the Senate. More recently, unions rallied for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would eliminate the right of workers in 27 states to abstain from supporting a union, among other changes. It is currently stuck in the Senate, and some Democrats have balked at it.

The Employee Free Choice Act was promoted as a way to make it easier for workers to form unions. What it actually did was eliminate the possibility that workers could secure a secret-ballot vote on whether they wanted union representation. Under current law, unions present cards allegedly signed by workers supporting the union to the employer. The employer can then request that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hold a secret ballot to determine whether the union’s claim is genuine. Under the EFCA, once the union presents the cards, the NLRB would automatically certify the union as the workers’ exclusive bargaining representative, never verifying the union’s claim with the workers themselves. Union organizers have been alleged to misrepresent what the cards actually entail, something that the elections are meant to guard against. Consider how those workers would feel when they learn that the card they had signed to simply “give them more union-related information” had actually committed a portion of their paycheck to the union?

Similarly, if the PRO Act were to pass, how would workers feel when they are told that if they want to keep their job, they have no choice but to support a union? The Act would eliminate right-to-work laws in the 27 states that have adopted them. Yet, nothing in a right-to-work law prevents anyone from joining a union if he or she so chooses; all it does is prevent workers from being forced to support a union.

How will those workers feel when they learn about the PRO Act’s other provisions, such as the one giving them no say over whether their employer gives out their personal-contact information to union organizers? Or the one making it illegal for them to have “side hustle” jobs because those are hard for unions to organize? Unions could face a significant backlash if the PRO Act passed.

The great irony of the contemporary labor movement is that it is aggressively trying to limit worker rights. Unions fear that if workers had complete freedom of choice they would make the “wrong” one and avoid unions.

“They see us as, you know, an institution like the government or even companies . . . storied organizations that don’t really relate to them,” Liz Shuler conceded in an interview last year. If that is really the case, then the union movement needs to adapt to those workers’ interests and stop trying to rig the laws in order to tell workers to get in line — “for their own good.”