The Bureau of Labor Statistics released data today showing that the national union membership rate held steady at 11.3 percent in 2013. The private-sector unionization rate rose slightly, from 6.6 percent in 2012 to 6.7 percent in 2013. And while public-sector unionization rates have held steady for decades, they fell from 37 percent in 2011 to 35.3 percent in 2013, due in part to state-level efforts to weaken collective bargaining laws. It is good news that union membership rates did not fall in 2013, but over the past 40 years, there has been a long and steady decline in union membership—which should be worrisome to all Americans, as unions are vital for a strong middle class. (see Figure 1)
Many factors have contributed to declining union membership rates. Yet one factor that is increasingly important to the fate of unions is government obstruction of the right of workers to freely associate and collectively bargain in unions.
Federal law guarantees the right of workers to organize in the private sector, but the protections afforded are inadequate at best. Moreover, even these weak protections are opposed by many conservatives, who have been waging a war on the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB—the government agency with exclusive jurisdiction to protect the right of both union and nonunion workers to join together to call for better treatment from their employers. Last summer, Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to stop the board from functioning by blocking a bipartisan panel of nominees to fill all five board seats.
This obstructionism is part of a larger pattern of activities that congressional Republicans have taken to undermine the NLRB, including effectively filibustering previous nominees, attempting to slash federal funding for the agency, interfering with ongoing investigations, and trying to block efforts to modernize worker-protection regulations. Indeed, in 2011, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) even stated, “I will continue to block all nominations to the NLRB. … The NLRB as inoperable could be considered progress.”
Moreover, conservatives are increasingly focused on dismantling state-level laws aimed at promoting workers’ rights to form unions. In 2012, conservative lawmakers in states such as Indiana and Michigan successfully passed “right-to-work” laws that undermine the strength of unions by requiring them to provide services for which they are not compensated. In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) led the successful effort to repeal the collective bargaining rights of most of the state’s public-sector workers. And in 2011 and 2012, at least 11 other states were successful in enacting laws that restrict government employees’ bargaining rights or the ability of public-sector unions to collect dues, according to a recent report by Dr. Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center.
These policy choices can significantly impact unionization rates, and they help explain the wide variation in unionization among states. In Wisconsin, for example, overall unionization rates have fallen by 1 percentage point since the state legislature passed the anti-collective bargaining law—from 13.3 percent in 2011 to 12.3 percent in 2013. Today, public-sector employees account for about half of all union members nationally; therefore, any declines in this sector’s ability to form unions and bargain collectively will have a significant impact on total unionization rates.
Sadly, but predictably, conservatives are even taking aim at small unionization efforts, going after, for example, a single organizing drive at a Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. If successful, the organizing drive would allow the automaker to install a works council at the plant to help boost productivity and give workers a stronger say on the job. And even though Volkswagen has made statements indicating that it is working with the United Automobile Workers, or UAW, to potentially create a works council there, a few conservatives whose power partially depends on keeping unions weak are trying to turn this organizing drive into a controversial fight by stirring up fears that unions and works councils would be bad for the economy and disturb Southern culture.
Why are conservatives so down on unions? For the most part, they fear the greater political participation of middle-class citizens enabled by unions, as well as the progressive policies that organized workers often support. Instead of letting the workers decide whether it is in their interests to organize into unions, these conservative politicians understand that by dismantling laws and institutions designed to protect workers’ right to join together in unions, they can destroy one of their strongest political adversaries.
Political attacks on workers’ right to bargain must be rejected, and policies that help workers freely choose whether to organize should be adopted if we want to strengthen organized labor. This means updating current collective bargaining laws and union election laws to ensure that all workers who want to form a union are able to do so. Strong unions are necessary for a strong middle class, and these policies will help create a vibrant middle class—the engine of economic growth.
Karla Walter is the Associate Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project.