The Tide Has Turned Against Unions
Labor unions were originally intended to raise wages (from miserable levels) and improve working conditions (from even more miserable levels). However, somewhere along the way, after achieving a federal minimum wage and the widespread adoption of the five-day workweek, the unions lost their way.
Today, the only way they can seemingly justify their existence is to point out their successes of the past as if, in the absence of the unions, companies would go back to paying employees pennies an hour, and forcing employees to work 18 hours per day, 7 days per week in wildly unsafe factories. Until recently, unions have enjoyed relying on those past successes in order to gain more political power at the expense of the worker and the taxpayer.
And even though union membership has been steadily declining; at the beginning of the Obama Administration, unions thought they were on top of the world. They were given handout after handout, starting with the United Auto Workers bailout which resulted in a $23 billion loss to tax payers and gave unions a majority stake in General Motors (even though union pensions were one of the main drivers of the companies’ declines).
Following this union win, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was empowered by the Administration to proactively promote labor unions by expanding their reach. They began this with a lawsuit against Boeing for opening a new plant in right-to-work state South Carolina. The NLRB sued Boeing, despite the fact that no union workers would be adversely affected by the business decision. The lawsuit transformed the business climate by allowing the unions to exert control over business decisions, including where a business expands in the country.
The NLRB’s action succeeded in forcing Boeing to expand even further than intended, by opening up a new plant not just in South Carolina, but to increase production at their Washington State facility as well, in order to appease union workers and increase the union payroll.
While the lawsuit against Boeing was being dragged out, the NLRB went on to draft rules that would allow “mini unions,” unions of as few as 2 or 3 people. It would also allow multiple small unions within a company to bargain separately with the employer. By December of last year, the NLRB had also passed rules allowing “snap elections,” which would speed up the unionization process by holding an election in as few as ten days after a union gathered enough signatures to file a petition. This would put employers at a major disadvantage, as they would have almost no time to inform employees about what unionization would mean for their jobs.
While all this was going on, across the country newly elected Governors were fighting to rescue their states from the costs of government union pensions and exorbitant benefits. Governors Scott Walker (R-WI), John Kasich (R-OH), Rick Snyder (R-MI) and Chris Christie (R-NJ) all worked to pass reforms that would save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by curbing collective bargaining (they’re bargaining with other people’s money) and requiring government union employees to contribute a portion of their paycheck to their health benefits and pension (just like every private sector worker has to do). Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN) was even able to pass a law to make Indiana a right-to-work state. The reforms were modest, public workers still don’t contribute as much as private workers, yet still the unions lashed out.
And, for a time, it looked like they would win at the state level in addition to their national wins. In Ohio, voters overturned Governor Kasich’s collective bargaining law by a 2-1 margin. At the same time in Wisconsin, union leaders organized workers to strike at the Capitol and force a recall election of Governor Scott Walker.
After decades of decline, it appeared as though unions – at least the public sector ones – were making a rebound.
But just as it appeared the unions were winning, President Obama seemingly reversed those gains by abusing his power when he “recess” appointed three members to the NLRB early this year. He claimed the Senate was in “recess,” even though they were holding pro forma sessions – something championed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) when President Bush was in office to prevent such appointments. In fact, during one of these pro forma sessions right after Christmas, they passed a short-term extension of the payroll tax cut. The argument that nothing ever got done during pro forma sessions was negated.
The uproar that followed these appointments forced even the liberal media to address the issue, even though they had remained silent on the other NLRB wins that had already transpired. This gave the American people the opportunity to see what was really going on. They had already learned about the pension excesses in many states, and the tide began to turn against the unions. People saw what was happening across the country in order to boost union payrolls – and they didn’t like it.
They saw the video of the New Jersey teachers bragging about partying on the taxpayers’ dime and how difficult it is to fire a tenured teacher (tenure is achieved after just three years of work). They’ve since heard about Chicago teachers demanding a 30% pay increase, despite already making twice as much as the taxpayers paying their salaries.
Instances like these are causing government unions to lose their ground. Just one in ten nonunion workers want to unionize. Union membership makes up just 7% of the private sector. In 2012, just 22% had a favorable view of teachers unions. (It is also clear people differentiate between teachers and the teachers union.)
States began to see wins for the remaining 93% of workers (the taxpayers) as well. Governor Scott Walker won his recall election by 7 points. And in the same night, nearly two thirds of Californians in San Diego and San Jose voted to cut pension benefits for public sector workers (who retire at an early age and receive massive taxpayer-funded pensions every year after that).
Even Democrats began to realize that public sector unions needed to change. Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa has recently received a backlash from the SEIU because he asked new public sector employees to contribute more to their pensions (which are bankrupting the city) and raising the retirement age by two whole years.
And just last week, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling saying that unions cannot force non-members to pay dues used for political activities. No longer are union workers required to bankroll the union’s political donations, even if those donations go to politicians the dues-paying workers don’t support. It was a huge win for union workers and the country, and a blow to the politicized union apparatus.
The next step towards empowering workers – as opposed to unions – would be for Congress to pass the RAISE Act. Last week in the Senate, 45 Senators voted to include the legislation as an amendment to the farm bill. That’s 45 Republicans who voted to allow union workers to receive a raise based on their hard work, not union seniority. It would encourage hard work rather than punish it. While it may not have passed in the Senate, it set a marker for next year and gives the House momentum to take up its version as a standalone bill.
Unions do not like the RAISE Act because it takes away their power to control workers and make them dependent on the union, rather than their employer, for their wages. The SEIU warned that the RAISE Act is a “federal attack on your rights at work.” Funny, since this bill allows employers to pay union members more money.
Union leaders are seeing their grasp over employees loosening, and they’re scared. In order to truly help American workers – and taxpayers – unions need to return to their proper roles in the workforce.