With Labor Day upon us on Monday, we note that labor unions have taken a higher profile in the news than in recent years, with President Trump’s effort to reduce their influence.
The consequent legal battle could help establish a new, and better, role for the unions.
Trump in May signed three executive orders that would make it easier for government offices to fire workers, centralize collective bargaining through the White House Office of Management and Budget, and limit the amount of time workers could spend on union activities while on the job.
A federal judge last month threw out many of the orders’ clauses, ruling that they violated provisions of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act. Executive orders can’t supersede written law.
These days, workers see less need to belong to labor unions and pay union dues. After a wave of reforms beginning in 2011 when states began prohibiting unions from requiring union membership at certain companies, membership has fallen steadily. Roughly 35 percent of American workers were unionized in 1954; that number has fallen to less than 11 percent today, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And the highest concentration of union membership remains in the government and education sectors at 34 percent, compared to 6.5 percent in the private sector, the BLS reports.
Labor unions were at their strongest a century ago, during the wave of industrialization that brought rapid growth of factory work. The growth of factory work outpaced legislation that would protect workers, and unions informed workers of their rights, organized them to strike in order to demand better conditions and provided pension and insurance funds for workers and their families.
Over time, however, basic workers’ rights were codified into law, and today’s workers arguably are better informed of what those rights are. Posters detailing many of those rights can be seen at most workplaces today.
Labor unions have endured hard times, including scandals that linked some to organized crime syndicates. But government prohibitions, as some Trump supporters have requested, are extreme and unnecessary.
Ultimately, workers should be free to decide their own fate. Compulsory union membership is wrong, as it doesn’t allow individual workers to negotiate their own employment terms. And if unions die on their own due to lack of membership and support, so be it. But if people wish to bargain collectively or seek advocates to negotiate their terms, they should be allowed to do so. If an employer refuses to deal with such advocates, the workers are free to seek employment elsewhere.
The best business atmosphere is one in which employers and workers feel free to deal with each other as equals and work toward mutually beneficial agreements. Artificial mandates or prohibitions, for or against either side, could impose artificial handicaps that could lead to unfair labor practices.