Unions see their star rising

American corporate executives spend several hundred million dollars a year on "union avoidance" lawyers and consultants (less politely called "union busters,") to keep their companies union-free.

Other costs involved in campaigns against trade unions may well boost the bill above $1 billion a year, estimates management professor John Logan.

The United States, says Mr. Logan of the London School of Economics, is the only industrialized nation to have a "union avoidance" industry of any size engaged in helping management resist unionization, undermine union strength, or unload existing unions.

This industry, consisting of dozens of law firms and consultancies, has ballooned since the 1970s. Its success is one reason why trade union membership has declined to 7.4 percent of nonsupervisory workers in the private sector and 35 percent of nonsupervisory government workers, or 12 percent overall in 2006, down from 12.5 percent in 2005.

That success, say trade union supporters, hangs on intimidating workers with bullying techniques that are accommodated by toothless laws and pro-management federal institutions.

But Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, the confederation of American trade unions, is not discouraged. Public opinion polls show, he says in an interview, that over the past eight or nine years more and more American workers want union representation.

A 2006 poll finds that, given a choice between a union and no representation at all, 32 percent of nonunion workers would vote for a trade union. And 90 percent of unionized workers would vote to keep their union.

Perhaps that's no surprise. Studies find that unionized workers are paid better on average than nonunion workers in the same industry. And that fact explains in some degree why management figures it's worth hiring "union avoidance" professionals to keep union organizers at bay. In fact, 70 percent of firms facing a union organizing campaign hire them.

Further, these "union busters" create demand for their services by stirring up management fears that unionization could have dire consequences for their firms, says Logan. They contribute to the aggressive and adversarial nature of US labor-management relations, he says.

Encouraged by the Democratic Party's success in last year's congressional election and the passing of the Employee Free Choice Act by the House of Representatives on March 1, Mr. Acuff sees a revival of the union movement ahead.

That bill received support from 13 House Republicans. Acuff predicts that when the Senate takes up the legislation, it will get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster, but not the two-thirds vote needed to escape a promised veto by President Bush. So it may take the election of a Democratic president in 2008 to get labor laws amended to facilitate more union organizing, he says.

The proposed law provides for real penalties for firing a union organizer. Though illegal now, the penalty for such firings is so immaterial that companies do so in 1 out of 4 workplaces where unions are attempting to organize employees, finds Kate Bronfenbrenner, an expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Currently, in cases where an illegal firing is determined, the worker gets only back pay minus any earnings he or she has received from a replacement job. After seven years, a worker in one case was reinstated to his job and got a mere $1,300 in back pay, notes Lance Compa, who also teaches at Cornell.

The proposed law would provide for a $2,000 penalty plus triple back pay.

Under existing law, managers can "predict" that their plant and jobs could be sent elsewhere, often to Mexico. But they can't "threaten" to do so – a difference that is meaningless to workers concerned about jobs in uncertain times.

The Free Choice Act also would change when unions are recognized. At present, management can insist on an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Professor Bronfenbrenner holds that these elections are not really by secret ballot. Management or their consultants can find out how each employee will vote by one-on-one interrogation of employees, secret surveillance using ID badges, or other methods. Union backers feel threatened, seeing the prospects for their jobs fading, she says.

The proposed law lets unions be recognized if they get a majority of workers to sign a card saying they want union representation. The US Chamber of Commerce charges that this would threaten workers' choices, making them vulnerable to coercion by union organizers.

Still, Bronfenbrenner sees public opinion shifting in favor of organized labor, possibly influenced by Democratic presidential candidates John Edwards, Barack Obama, and William Richardson – all supporters of the Free Choice Act.

If unions grow, this "worker power," Acuff says, can provide an alternative to "unchecked corporate power" and push more workers into the middle class.

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