While it hasn't gotten much attention, one of the most important issues that our elections this November could decide is the future of organized labor in the United States. This is important not just for the 15.7 million workers who happen to be in unions, but for the vast majority of the entire 154 million-member U.S. labor force. The wages, benefits, and working conditions of most employees are affected by collective bargaining even if they don't have a union. For example, employers who want to keep unions out will sometimes have to offer their workers such amenities as health insurance.
One of the most important problems that our economy has faced for the last 30 years has been stagnating real wages. With inflation now running at 10.6 percent over the last quarter, the problem appears to most people to be rising prices, including food and energy. But for more than two decades prior to the past year, inflation has been tame. Yet the real - inflation-adjusted -- wage of the typical employee barely increased at all over the whole 34 years from 1973-2007.
This is amazing, when we consider that productivity - the amount that workers produce per hour - increased quite substantially over the period. Measured very conservatively, if we take "usable productivity" - the increased production that we can expect to be reflected in rising wages - it rose by 48 percent from 1973-2007. So our economy grows but, unlike in the past, most employees do not share in the gains.
One important reason for this great leap backwards is that the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively have been sharply curtailed over the last three decades.
For example, employees still have the legal right to petition for a federally-run election at their workplace, in which workers can vote on whether or not to join a union. To get such an election, they need the signatures of at least 30 percent of the employees. But after the employees get enough signatures for the election, employers very often intimidate workers through threats and firings before the vote is held. The Center for Economic and Policy Research has estimated that one in five workers who are actively involved in a union organizing drive can expect to be fired. Many others are "persuaded" to vote against the union through a long, captive audience campaign of employer threats and harassment.
As a result of these tactics, only about 12 percent of employees are organized in unions today, as compared with 35 percent in the 1950s. Reform legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act would give employees a fighting chance to regain some of their lost rights. This bill would mandate that an employer recognize the union if it obtains the signatures of a majority of employees. There would be no need for the long and costly - especially to the workers who are fired - election campaign.
A poll by Global Strategies Group this month found that 68 percent of middle-class Americans support the Employee Free Choice Act. Polls also indicate that tens of millions would join a union if they had the choice.
The bill passed the House 241-185 but was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate. It's a party-line split in the Senate (except for support from Republican Senator Arlen Specter). So the bill would need a Democratic president and something close to 59 Democrats in the Senate in order to pass.
This law would probably change Americans' lives more than any legislation since the New Deal brought us Social Security. The political influence of millions of new union members would also bring us closer to such basic reforms as universal health care. It's all long overdue.
This op-ed was distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services on August 28, 2008.
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