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Employee Free Choice Act
M. Spencer Green/AP
Workers protest around a giant inflatable rat in Chicago.

Union Membership Rises as Pro-Labor Legislation Is Debated

January 30, 2009 02:30 PM
by Josh Katz
Government statistics indicate that union membership has increased in the last two years after decades of dwindling numbers; the statistics could influence the debate over controversial union legislation.

Union Membership Increases in 2008

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Union membership in the United States increased for the second year in a row, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. When the numbers rose last year, it marked a change after decades of falling union membership.

The statistics from the report released on Wednesday indicate that 12.4 percent of employed wage and salary workers were union members in 2008, as compared to 12.1 percent in 2007. In other words, unions boasted 428,000 more members, putting the total number of union members at 16.1 million, according to Reuters.

Last year, union membership had a small increase from 12 percent in 2006 to 12.1 percent in 2007. Despite two years of growth, union members currently account for a much smaller percentage of the U.S. workforce than they did in the mid-1950s, when about 26 percent of the employed were unionized.

The highest rate of unionization belonged to education, training and library workers, at 38.7 percent, according to the report, and government workers were about five times more likely to be union members than workers in the private sector, Reuters reports.

Labor unions were strong supporters of Barack Obama in the presidential election, and they believe he will support pro-labor legislation. Obama will most likely sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Play Act into law soon, which loosens the statute of limitation requirements for women suing for wage discrimination. North Carolina had the lowest rate of union membership, while New York had the highest.

The government report also said that, “In 2008, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $886 while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $691,” Reuters reports.

The recent statistics shed light on the debate surrounding the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Unions and business are battling over the legislation that would make it easier to form a union.

Now, business groups that object to the bill could say that the union membership is increasing anyway, so there’s no reason to make it easier. But on Wednesday, unions argued that “it remained far too difficult to unionize workers in the private sector,” according to The New York Times.

Usually, state and city officials are more amenable to unionization, while private sector employees oppose such efforts because they increase costs, the Times writes.

Background: Unions and employers battle over EFCA

Under the controversial Employee Free Choice Act, after a majority of employees sign union membership cards, employers would be forced to recognize the union, acording to Crain's Chicago Business. Currently, companies could choose not to recognize such a union, and call for the National Labor Relations Board to organize an employee election to determine the status of the union. Furthermore, the bill could lead to arbitration for labor contracts between unions and employers that employers would have to abide by.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes the EFCA
, and says it will spend $10 billion in lobbying to fight it. Obama has backed the act, and his Labor secretary, Rep. Hilda L. Solis, has called it “vital legislation,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

However, the U.S. Senate was and remains the main obstacle to the bill. A Republican filibuster defeated it last year even though it glided through the House. Also, Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara, said it might be difficult for Obama to take on the legislation early on in his presidency.

“It’s a rallying point for Republicans,” he said, “and a wedge issue for some Democrats.”

“The American public supports the secret ballot,” argues Randy Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Card checks are subject to abuse.”

Labor leaders have said that the secret ballot is detrimental because “employers use the time leading up to the vote to harass, fire and threaten workers,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Union officials also claim that an employer can unnecessarily extend the period of contract negotiations following union approval through an election, and possibly have the union decertified.

The act would also increase the punishment against employers who break the labor law. Opponents of the bill contest that it unfairly ups the penalty against the employers while not doing so against unions, even though 6,000 of the “more than 22,000 unfair-labor-practice charges filed with the NLRB in fiscal 2007” were attributed to unions. The use of restraint and coercion by unions accounted for most of the charges.

But the passage of the bill would most likely result in increased union membership, and union membership has dropped significantly in recent years, “from a high of 35% of the U.S. workforce down to 12% today,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Related Topic: Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay bill into law soon. The bill, which the House of Representatives passed on Jan. 17 by a vote of 250-177, will “give workers alleging unequal pay the right to sue within 180 days of their most recent paycheck,” according to CNN. The Bush White House and the Republicans in the Senate prevented the bill from passing last year, and it became a campaign issue during the presidential election.

The law will reverse a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2007, which said that women could not sue for wage discrimination unless they filed the claim within 180 days of receiving their first discriminatory paycheck. In the Supreme Court case, Lilly Ledbetter argued that she did not know about the wage discrimination until the latter part of her 19-year career as a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. worker. Almost “two decades of discrimination meant her salary was 15 percent to 40 percent lower than what her male counterparts earned,” Bloomberg wrote.

Reference: The Employee Free Choice Act

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