The Challenges to Organizing Workers in Today's Economy

Apr 2, 2014Richard Kirsch

This is the fourth in a series of posts summarizing a new Roosevelt Institute paper report by Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch, entitled "The Future of Work in America: Policies to Empower American Workers and Ensure Prosperity for All." The report provides a short history of how the rise and decline of unions and then explores reforms in labor policy to empower American workers to organize unions and rebuild the middle class. Today’s post identified the major challenges posed by the changes in how employment is structured, which new policies must address.

When you consider what it would take, under American labor law, to organize the nation’s biggest employers, you understand the huge challenge unions face to organize workers and win a fair share of the nation's economic progress.

Today, the largest employers in the country (Walmart, McDonalds and Yum Brands – owner of major fast-food chains like KFC and Pizza Hut) – employ a small number of workers, primarily low-wage, at each of their thousands of locations. Walmart - which employs approximately 300 workers at each location - is the largest of these. Unions would need to collect the signatures of half of the workers at each of thousands of locations, so organizing a major share of the company’s employees is daunting.

After a union did get the support of a majority of workers at any location, the company could warn its employees against voting for the union while they were on the clock, but the union would need to find and talk to each employee outside of work. The only penalty the company would face for firing union activists or supporters would be to pay back-pay, a nominal amount when wages are so low, and only after a protracted regulatory and judicial process.

Of course, since many of the workers are part-time, job turnover is very high. As a result, the longer the store succeeds in delaying an election, the more workers will turn over, requiring the union to continually organize new crops of workers to win a simple majority. If the workers won the election and the store refused to negotiate in good faith, it could prolong the talks until only a few of the original workers remained. If workers did strike, the store could hire replacement workers and wait longer. Or they could decide to close the store – as Walmart did in Canada – because the loss to the company of one outlet among thousands has virtually no impact on its bottom line. And if by some miracle a union organizing effort was successful, the union would represent only the one store that employed only a fraction of the corporation’s workforce, making it difficult to influence broader industry standards.

When we look at the job categories that are adding the most workers today we see the same story. The organizing challenges of two groups of workers - retail sales and fast food - are captured in the discussion above. We also find other obstacles. Only one of the six job categories with the most job growth – registered nurses – has historically been represented by unions. A substantial share of workers in two other growing categories – home health aides and personal care aides – are not covered by the NLRA, whether because they work for the person they are assisting or because they are categorized as independent contractors.

We can group the major challenges facing labor organizing and policy into five categories:

Current labor law is tilted against unions. There are virtually no strong incentives for employers to recognize unions or to reach bargaining agreements. Government is ineffective in enforcing the laws on the books and powerful tools that unions might use to gain more power in the economy are prohibited.

Only a relatively small number of workers are employed at one site. As we described above, organizing workers at many of the nation’s large corporations now requires successful campaigns at thousands of worksites.

Industries are typified by diverse, global supply chains, in which a major corporation that sells goods to the public does not directly employ many of the workers who produce its products. As a result, the employer that is driving the price for the good or service being delivered is shielded from legal responsibility for the conditions of work, the compensation paid to many of the people who make the good or deliver the service, and responsibility for responding to unionization efforts.

Labor law does not cover many workers. Approximately one-in-four workers are not covered by the NLRA or other labor laws. These include domestic workers, farmworkers, supervisors and independent contractors.

Corporations have become much more powerful than unions and often more powerful than governments, making decisions that determine people’s well being and shape the national and global economy. Corporations use their power to cut wages and benefits, including by subverting labor laws.

A major goal of the Future of Work Initiative is to envision policies to address these challenges, in order to create a society of broadly shared prosperity. We seek policies to both reform and transform American labor law and policy. In the final two posts in this series, we will describe a wide variety of policy ideas to address the five major challenges listed above.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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