With the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the rights of workers in the private sector to form and join unions of their choosing were recognized and codified into law.
It has been 86 years since passage of the NLRA, and with amendments and numerous court cases, precedents, and rulings it is time to see how workers in the private sector seeking to form or join unions at their workplaces have fared under the NLRA:
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you will find that the percentage of the private sector workforce composed of union members declined from 20.1% in 1983 when the BLS data series began to 6.3% in 2020. Certainly not the kind of result expected of a system that is supposed to protect and promote the rights of workers to unionize, especially when surveys and polling consistently find that tens of millions of workers would choose to be in a union at their workplace if given a fair opportunity to do so.
More telling are the data compiled by the NLRB showing that between 2011 and 2020, 18,001 workers were illegally fired in retaliation for exercising their NLRA rights to form and join unions and were ordered reinstated by the NLRB with employers paying over $600 million in back pay.
When workers successfully organize a workplace and are certified by the NLRB as the bargaining representative the next step is to engage in collective bargaining to have a contract approved by union members and management. Achieving a first contract is another element of the NLRA process that has proven vulnerable to employer manipulation so that a first contract is reached only about half the time workers organize.
I have a sure-fire way of assessing how well workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively are protected under the NLRA: if you work in a workplace without a union go tell your boss that you want to start a union and see what happens! You will likely be targeted, surveilled, interrogated, isolated, and probably fired. So-called “union avoidance” consultants and lawyers will be quickly dispatched, and the anti-union propaganda will immediately flow to every worker in the workplace and “captive audience” meetings will commence. That is the reality of union organizing under the NLRA and why we need to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act – the PRO Act now!
The PRO Act prohibits employer interference of any sort, including delaying the vote or forcing workers to attend mandatory anti-union meetings; the PRO Act establishes a process which makes obtaining a first contract more likely through mediation and arbitration; the PRO Act prohibits employers from permanently replacing workers who strike; the PRO Act protects workers from retaliation by allowing for compensatory damages to workers who are illegally terminated or otherwise penalized for exercising their right to form or join a union of their choosing; and these are just a few of the key provisions of the PRO Act.
If we are to truly transform our economy, raise wages, provide health care, retirement security, shrink income inequality, passing the PRO Act is essential. Until our labor laws are updated to reflect the reality of the unbalanced relationship between workers and management in the exercise of workers’ right to free association and to bargain collectively private sector unionization will continue to decline as will the wages and living standards of ALL workers whether a union member or not. That is what is before us.
Will we continue to allow huge corporations to use their enormous economic power to thwart the desires and dreams of tens of millions of workers who want and need the power of a united voice on the job through unionization or are we going to pass the PRO Act and transform our economy by uplifting the aspirations of millions of workers for a better future for themselves, their children and families and our country? Tell your senators that it is time to pass the PRO Act!
Bill Londrigan is president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.