The one-day strikes of fast-food workers and the “Black Friday” protests by Wal-Mart employees provide stark illumination to the obscene disparity that exists between the incomes of the wealthiest few at the top of the economic ladder―including the Walton family―and the ever-enlarging population at the bottom of that ladder. Although this disparity calls attention to the familiar story of the shrinking middle class, a less-noticed story is the decline of unions in the private sector. A key element missing from both stories, however, is public awareness of their tandem relationship. It should be remembered that collective bargaining by unions was a major factor in building a large and healthy middle class in the middle last-half of the last century. Collective bargaining In those years was the primary factor that set national wage patterns, and nonunion companies―rather than racing to the bottom―generally remained nonunion by providing wages and working conditions that were near or equivalent to those prevailing under union contracts. The middle class that resulted was the envy of the world.
Those conditions did not last. For various reasons, including loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign competition, out-sourcing of many other jobs, and failure of organized labor to recoup membership losses in the face of what had become an unfair election process largely controlled by employers, union membership and power declined precipitously. Union representation became virtually unavailable to most American workers, and private-sector union membership dropped to a low of 6.6 percent. Shrinkage of the middle class and decline in union representation is thus closely related.
Today, with political and media attention focused on the plight of the middle class, many peripheral remedies have been proposed, such as raising the minimum wage, realigning federal tax burdens, and expanding various governmental programs to alleviate hardship at the bottom of the economic scale. Yet none of these band-aid approaches reaches the core of the problem of inequitable income distribution, which is simply the inadequacy of wages in most low and semi-skilled and non-professional employment. The decline in union membership and authority has resulted in an almost total absence of collective bargaining in the vast majority of American workplaces, hence an absence of any countervailing force that might provide workers with the means to obtain their fair share of the economic pie.
It is thus unfortunate that little attention is being paid to finding an effective way to increase the low wage scales that prevail in our economy―a task for which unions are best suited, but which they can no longer adequately perform when they represent only a small percentage of the workforce. Nevertheless, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Although until recently no serious attention was being given to innovative means by which organized labor might reverse its membership decline, there will soon be available a relatively unfamiliar non-legislative process that can make it much easier for employees to organize and engage in collective bargaining―a program that could reverse the downward trend of union membership, return collective bargaining to the role that Congress intended, and therefore spur revitalization of the middle class. That program is pre-majority members-only collective bargaining, which is a process that was widely used during the first decade following passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. In fact, members-only collective bargaining contracts were the means by which the Steelworkers organized “Big Steel” and the means the UAW used to settled its sit-down strikes and sign its first contracts with General Motors and Chrysler. Current conditions are again ripe for the use of this almost forgotten process. It will now be up to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with its newly confirmed five permanent members, to revive that process.
Existing law specifically guarantees all employees, not just majority employees, the right to belong to unions and engage in collective bargaining. Contrary to popular misinformation, the law does not require a union-majority as a requisite for such bargaining. The statute so states unambiguously and there are no legal decisions to the contrary. It is only when a union achieves majority membership that it becomes the exclusive representative of all employees in a bargaining unit, including nonunion employees; but the duty to bargain with a non-majority union for members only prior to that majority/exclusivity status remains an important part of the law.
The time has come for employees and unions to return to that earlier practice of simultaneously organizing and bargaining exclusively for union members until majority-status is achieved. The NLRB will soon have an opportunity to validate that process, after which employers―including Wal-Mart and fast-food establishments―can be required to bargain with less-than-majority groups of employees. The resulting resurgence of union membership and collective bargaining should help to accelerate the rebuilding of the middle-class.