Can Labor Revive the American Dream?
For a snapshot of how current labor law works, you could do worse than to travel to McComb, Ohio, a small town a half-hour south of Toledo, where, one Wednesday in early December, Bill Lawhorn showed up for his job as a forklift operator for the first time in six years. He and six other workers were fired in 2002 after leading a campaign to unionize Consolidated Biscuit, a massive industrial bakery in McComb that produces popular snacks for Nabisco such as Oreos, Nutter Butters and Ritz crackers. The workers started out with "a fire in their belly," recalls an organizer from the bakery and confectionary workers union, with more than 650 of 800 signing cards of interest. But after Consolidated Biscuit hired a unionbusting firm and started threatening workers with firings or deportations or shuttering the plant altogether, the union lost the election. In 2004 an administrative law judge found the threats and firings to be illegal, but the company appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and then to a circuit court. It wasn't until mid-November that Consolidated Biscuit was finally forced to bring Lawhorn back and allow a fresh vote.
Consolidated Biscuit is one of the few big employers in northwest Ohio, and after eleven years earning around $12.50 an hour there, Lawhorn was stuck hunting for work in a region where jobs are scarce. He estimates that he applied for more than a hundred, including security guard positions paying only $7 an hour, but he says he never got a single call. Eventually he borrowed money from his kids to buy a truck to haul garbage for his neighbors, which brought in a little extra cash until gas prices got too high. He and his wife skated along on her wages from a retail distribution center, but then she developed heart trouble and ended up out of work herself. "Times really, really got hard," he says. "I'm 52 years old. At 52, you shouldn't borrow from your children; you should loan to them. You shouldn't wonder how do you buy your grandchildren a Christmas present." Though Lawhorn received a paycheck in time for Christmas last year, Consolidated Biscuit is still contesting the order to give him back pay.
At least Lawhorn got his job back; one of his fired co-workers died before the case was resolved. Nationwide, some 86,000 workers have been fired over the past eight years for trying to unionize (countless others have been threatened), and only a fraction of these get reinstated by the NLRB. So Lawhorn's return to the forklift is what passes for a victory these days, under the shredded protections of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, whose intent was not merely to protect the right to collective bargaining but to "encourag[e] the practice."
That, says Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner, is long gone. According to her research, employers fire workers in a quarter of all campaigns, threaten workers with plant closings or outsourcing in half and employ mandatory one-on-one meetings where workers are threatened with job loss in two-thirds. All of these tactics are illegal. Unions, meanwhile, are consigned to getting out their message off the clock and off the premises. "The fact that our labor law has no penalties for employer violations, no punitive damages, no financial penalties, that the worst thing that happens to employers when they commit egregious violations is a slap on the wrist, has emboldened employers to break the law at an extreme that is really astonishing," says Bronfenbrenner.
The crisis is so deep that in a rising number of campaigns, unions have abandoned board-certified elections altogether, instead using public pressure to secure union recognition from employers when a majority of workers sign cards. Over the past decade, the number of election petitions has fallen by 41 percent. Take the Communications Workers of America: within a year and a half of pressuring management at Cingular (now AT&T) to recognize card check, CWA had organized 30,000 new members. But CWA recently lost three elections in a row at Comcast worksites, despite enjoying majority support--the result of antiunion threats from Comcast. With Employee Free Choice in place, CWA could have used card check even with this sort of intransigent employer.
Likewise, with Employee Free Choice in effect, Consolidated Biscuit workers would have had a union since May 2002, when a majority first signed cards. With the threat of arbitration, a contract would have been signed before the end of the year, likely boosting pay to $20 an hour. And the penalty for firings may have been stiff enough--triple back pay plus penalties--that Lawhorn and the others might never have lost their jobs.
What would its passage unleash now? Though union membership has slid to 12 percent in recent decades, the desire to unionize has grown--from 30 percent of nonunion workers in the mid-1980s to 53 percent of them now. "Look, the bill will not stop corporate unionbusting," says the AFL-CIO's head of strategic research, Kenneth Zinn, "but it will level the playing field for workers to join a union." If the bill passes, says Change to Win campaign director Bob Callahan, his federation's unions--including the Service Employees, Teamsters, and Food and Commercial Workers--are poised to organize on a massive scale. He predicts 5 million new members in the first eighteen months after passage--meaning, he says, 5 million workers winning a double-digit raise, nearly a million of them lifted out of poverty. Zinn imagines whole industries, and even the "right to work" South, possibly opening up to unionization.
With the concentration of wealth approaching 1929 levels, there is a forceful case to be made that unionization holds the best chance for a reversal. Corporate profits have doubled since 2001, while real wages have flatlined and the number of workers earning poverty wages has risen to nearly a quarter of the workforce. Unionized workers earn between 15 and 28 percent more than their nonunion counterparts and receive far better health and retirement benefits, and when unions reach a high enough density in a particular industry, wages in nonunion shops tend to rise to meet the new standard.
But unionization rates have been crashing for decades. "Historically, unionization basically created the middle class," says economist James Galbraith. "First, by its direct effect on the wages and benefits of unionized workers; second, by its indirect effect on the wages of workers who weren't unionized; and third, by the impact unions had on the creation of the social institutions that underpin the middle class, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid--the very structures of the New Deal and the Great Society." A line tracing the rise of wealth inequality and one tracing the decline in unionization make a perfect mirror image of each other.