As America's economic recovery continues at a snail's pace, the fiscal cliff looms, and officials elected to office in November prepare to take office next month, protecting the rights of working people to organize and maintain their unions should be a focal point in the crafting of a broader domestic economic agenda. And with the New Year upon us, it affords us the chance to look back and see how our economic past impacts our future.
In the wake of the passage of Michigan's right-to-work-law, we have witnessed much handwringing on the left and back-slapping on the right that this decidedly blue state and bulwark of the American labor movement became the 24th state in the country to enact such legislation. The immediate and long-term consequences of the Michigan law remain to be seen, but few doubt that it will erode the influence of organized labor there, and possibly nationwide.
But importantly, our own history provides ample evidence that law and public policies such as these that effectively amount to a race-to-the-bottom for America's workers impede the growth of a robust middle-class, threatening the United States' economic health and the ongoing recovery.
While campaigning for president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt called for economic planning that would "build from the bottom up and not from the top down." Addressing a nation reeling from the Great Depression, he acknowledged the government couldn't spend its way out that crisis. Yet FDR eschewed policies where relief came only to those at the "top of the social and economic structure" -- sound familiar? -- and instead proposed permanent relief to those on the lower economic rungs of society.
With the passage of the landmark National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, three years after FDR's call to build from the bottom up and simultaneous with grassroots union organizing, labor unions became one of the most important vehicles for boosting wages and living standards for millions of U.S. workers, and for helping to create and sustain a robust middle class after World War II.
Now, what was lost in the news coverage post-Michigan is that historically the organization of workplaces often created a ripple effect throughout American industry. That is, management of unorganized factories often met the wages and benefits of the union shops as a way to undercut the incentives for their employees to unionize. The result in many industries was a rise in standards of living and workplace conditions across the board, and the creation of a "blue collar" middle class.
Maintenance-of-membership provisions in collective bargaining contracts negotiated during the war years were important tools in solidifying union gains, contributing to this economic stability realized by many industrial workers in the post-war era. These maintenance-of-membership provisions inserted into union contracts meant that newly-hired workers, in most cases following a period in which they could opt-out, would automatically become union members. These workers agreed to remain in good standing with the union through the payment of dues and abide by the union's regulations through the duration of the contract in return for representation by the union and the wages, workplace protections, and benefits the contract afforded.
When World War II ended, maintenance-of-membership provisions proved to be a protection from union-busting that had previously withered the gains of organized labor. Though these provisions helped fuel the expansion of the ranks of organized labor resulting in a peak unionization rate of over 35 percent in the mid-1950s, they have since been increasingly undermined by the passage of right-to-work legislation, by which states as early as the late 1940s began to outlaw such provisions.
And so by the 1970s, growing foreign competition, the outsourcing of jobs, and deindustrialization across broad swaths of manufacturing in the U.S. ushered in an era in which unorganized workplaces set industry standards, concessionary bargaining became the unfortunate norm, and legislative agendas reflected a union-hostile climate.
Union membership has continued to decline -- last year the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2010 membership to be at an over 70-year low of 11.9 percent, with only 6.9 percent of private sector workers represented by a union. Simultaneously, enforcement of workplace protections for employees seeking to organize unions has eroded.
Illegal corporate behavior toward pro-union workers, such as on-the-job harassment or firings, often goes unchecked (For recent examples, as well as some of the latest encouraging decisions from the National Labor Relations Board, visit the NLRB's 2012 news release archive.) Employees seeking to organize and secure union contracts in their workplaces -- especially in the low-wage service sector, where unions have struggled to make substantial gains but where jobs are often difficult or impossible to outsource -- find themselves in a decidedly uphill battle.
If history is any guide, it would well serve government officials at the local, state, and national levels to consider the role unions have historically played in building a middle class from the bottom up -- as well as the importance of the relationship between worker mobilization and government action in this process.
Looking back, Section7(a) of the New Deal's 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act recognized the right of workers to bargain collectively and helped spur grassroots organizing throughout the nation. Subsequent labor militancy underpinned the eventual passage and implementation of NLRA which enshrined the right to organize and collectively bargain in federal law.
Now, as then, workers must themselves undertake the task of organizing. But now, as then, government has an important role to play to grow and sustain the middle class as workers seek to form and maintain unions, negotiate union contracts, and thereby secure higher wages, improved workplace and safety standards, protections for basic rights, and benefits from their employers.
When crafting economic policies to revitalize the nation's middle class, policymakers must recognize that the best workplace standards are inexorably tied to the worst that exist, and rather than enacting legislation that undercuts the ability of workers to collectively bargain, take meaningful steps to bolster the ability of workers -- and the nation -- to avoid a slippery slope to the bottom.