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Monday, August 21, 2006

Political Ideology and Unionization

There is a debate about whether political ideology can affect economic outcomes (see Brad DeLong's summary as well). Here are some details of the Reagan administration's interactions with unions, followed by a few details on what Bush has done since taking office. The link between income inequality and unionization has been established elsewhere, so this concentrates on the interaction between politics and union activity:

Labor Leader Assails Reagan Over 'Union-Busting' Tactics UPI August 16, 1981: A regional director of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations told the group's Nevada state convention today that what he termed President Reagan's ''union-busting'' efforts aimed at the striking air controllers would result in a confrontation between the President and organized labor. ''We are not going to be silent witnesses of our own destruction,'' said Jim Baker, Region 6 director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Ronald Reagan's War on Labor, by Dick Meister: Reagan's war on labor began in the summer of 1981, when he fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers and destroyed their union. As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted, that was "an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got that message loud and clear -- illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad." ...

Most important was Reagan's appointment of three management representatives to the five-member National Labor Relations Board which oversees union representation elections and labor-management bargaining, They included NLRB Chairman Donald Dotson, who believed that "unionized labor relations have been the major contributors to the decline and failure of once-healthy industries" and have caused "destruction of individual freedom." Under Dotson, a House subcommittee found, the board abandoned its legal obligation to promote collective bargaining, in what amounted to "a betrayal of American workers."

The NLRB settled only about half as many complaints of employers' illegal actions as had the board during the previous administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter, and those that were settled upheld employers in three-fourths of the cases. Even under Republican Richard Nixon, employers won only about one-third of the time.

Most of the complaints were against employers who responded to organizing drives by illegally firing union supporters. The employers were well aware that under Reagan the NLRB was taking an average of three years to rule on complaints, and that in any case it generally did no more than order the discharged unionists reinstated with back pay. That's much cheaper than operating under a union contract.

The board stalled as long before acting on petitions from workers seeking union representation elections and stalled for another year or two after such votes before certifying winning unions as the workers' bargaining agents. Under Reagan, too, employers were allowed to permanently replace workers who dared exercise their legal right to strike.

Reagan's Labor Department was as one-sided as the NLRB. It became an anti-labor department, virtually ignoring, for instance, the union-busting consultants who were hired by many employers to fend off unionization. Very few consultants and very few of those who hired them were asked for the financial disclosure statements the law demands. Yet all unions were required to file the statements that the law required of them (and that could be used to advantage by their opponents). And though the department cut its overall budget by more than 10 percent, it increased the budget for such union-busting activities by almost 40 percent.

Union-busting was only one aspect of Reagan's anti-labor policy. He attempted to lower the minimum wage for younger workers, ease the child labor and anti-sweatshop laws, tax fringe benefits, and cut back job training programs for the unemployed. He tried to replace thousands of federal employees with temporary workers who would not have civil service or union protections.

The Reagan administration all but dismantled programs that required affirmative action and other steps against discrimination by federal contractors, and seriously undermined worker safety. It closed one-third of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's field offices, trimmed its staff by more than one-fourth and decreased the number of penalties assessed against employers by almost three-fourths.

Rather than enforce the law, the administration sought "voluntary compliance" from employers on safety matters - and generally didn't get or expect it. The administration had so tilted the job safety laws in favor of employers that union safety experts found them virtually useless.

The same could have been said of all other labor laws in the Reagan era. ...

The President's Anti-Labor Relations Board, by Dick Meister: The National Labor Relations Board has become a sick joke under President Bush. Although legally mandated to guarantee working people the opportunity to freely engage in union activities, the NLRB has been doing its best to deny them that vital right.

In their most outrageous decision, the Bush appointees who control the board ruled that an employer can order workers not to "fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with the client's employees or with co-employees." That's what a security guard company in San Francisco actually told its employees. ...

The board ruling obviously violates the intent of the National Labor Relations Act, which the NLRB is charged with enforcing  ... But given Bush's strong aversion to unions, that's OK with the board's Bush majority. ...

There's more - much more - that Bush's NLRB also should answer for. Consider, for instance, the rulings that have made unionization all but impossible for the millions of temporary workers who make up a substantial segment of the workforce and have denied union rights to the graduate students who teach most undergraduate classes at private colleges and universities.

Appointees of President Clinton controlled the NLRB in 2000, when it ruled that temporary employees could bargain together with employers' permanent workers. ... The Bush-controlled board nevertheless ruled last year that temporary workers can no longer bargain jointly with permanent workers unless both the employment agencies that place them and the employers who hire them consent to it. Which would be as likely as George Bush appointing AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to a cabinet post.

The graduate teaching assistants - TA's - lost the right to unionization a few months earlier. ... Bush's board ruled that, however difficult, time-consuming and essential the tasks, those who perform them cannot be considered workers eligible for union rights because they happen to be students.

In another reversal of a Clinton-era decision, the board took discriminatory action against non-union workers in general. It denied them the right that unionized workers have for co-workers or representatives to be present as witnesses and aides when employers call them in to face disciplinary charges.

The board also ruled that a group of disabled janitors couldn't have the union rights granted the able-bodied janitors with whom they worked, because their relationship with the employer was "primarily rehabilitative."

Yet another ruling has helped employers fend off union organizing drives by making it much easier for them to charge that organizers' efforts amount to illegal harassment of their workers. The board also ruled against the once standard practice of requiring employers to provide financial information to back their claims of not being able to afford union contract demands and gave them greater flexibility in locking out workers during contract disputes.

It's no surprise - certainly not to George Bush - that despite surveys showing clearly that at least half of the country's workers want to unionize, barely 12 percent have been able to do so.

I added this in comments: I am not trying to take a position on unions themselves in this post, this is only intended to find an association between political ideology and the degree of union activity.

It's been interesting. I don't post much about unions because there doesn't seem to be much interest in them, at least as I guage from comments the times that I have. I think that people believe there needs to be a counterveiling source of labor market power (well, some anyway), but that unions are an imperfect way of accomplishing that and they are hesitant to advocate for them. But nothing else has really stepped up to take their place.

One possible interpretation of labor market changes recently is that those with monopsony power - those at the extreme upper end of the income distribution - have the countervailing power they need and hence they have continued to do well. But those who have lost power through the political process have also realized more unequal incomes. There are, of course, other interpretations and that is what this debate is all about.

Update: PGL says to go read Kevin Drum for an good argument along the same lines

    Posted by on Monday, August 21, 2006 at 11:06 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, Politics, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (11)


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