Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Could a Union Be Coming to a Cubicle Near You?

My Dad was a blue-collar worker. His favorite job was working on the railroad, but the only job I really remember him having was at an oil refinery in Oklahoma. It was a dangerous, dirty job, but he never complained.

He worked at that oil refinery for several decades, until one day they closed it and laid off more than 900 people in my small town. It was devastating, but I think my father took it especially hard because he had served for many years as the union's president.

Guys would call our house at all hours of the day and night, looking to my Dad for some guidance on what they would do now that they couldn't earn a living. Again, my Dad never complained about losing his livelihood, but he agonized over the young workers with mortgages and children.

My Dad was 10 months from retirement when the refinery closed, and had a frail knee and back after being injured on the job. He received a pittance in severance and went to work at a gas station for the next several years to make ends meet.

The reason I tell this story is that I occupy a world different than my Dad's. I'm considered a white-collar professional, and have been in management. I've never been in a union, but I've been close to those who have -- my Dad and the hundreds of employees who worked in dangerous conditions and went on strike when the company wouldn't agree to better conditions.

I haven't thought about my Dad's union work until lately when the economy soured and the Obama Adminsitration made it clear that unions would be supported.

I decided to look into the issue and gain some perspective on what this means for workers today, especially the white-collar workers. Here's the story I did for Gannett:

Could a union be coming soon to a cubicle near you?

While unions often have been associated with the factory floor, the current Congressional and presidential support of unions, along with a disillusioned professional labor force, may mean that the time is ripe for unionization to move into new territory – the white-collar arena.

Not only has President Obama expressed support of unions, but his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) “have fundamentally changed the face of the NLRB, and are poised to make much more union-friendly policies,” says Shanti Atkins, a lawyer and president and CEO of ELT Inc. in San Francisco.

One of those changes currently afoot is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, now in a House committee, which would change the NLRB system regarding how workers vote on unions, Atkins says..

Specifically, the bill would give workers the choice of forming unions by getting a majority of employees to sign cards to join, without having to hold a secret ballot election. Currently, the law leaves it up to companies to decide whether employees must hold an election or can organize by checking the union membership cards. The proposed bill also states that if employers and employees can’t agree to a contract within 120 days, then a government arbitrator will help them set terms.

“There is certain to be an increase in union organizing activities, regardless of whether or not the highly controversial bill passes,” Atkins says.

That’s a change since union memberships have declined dramatically since the 1950s. It’s estimated that currently only about 7 percent of the private sector is unionized, but workers battered by the recession and the increasing government support of unions sets the stage for those numbers to grow, Atkins says.

Clete Daniel, professor of labor history for Cornell University, agrees.

“Traditionally white collar workers have made advances because of their individual hard work, so there was reluctance to assign themselves to groups such as a union,” he says. “The relationship between professionals and their employers was based on loyalty and mutual good will. As long as they were productive and efficient, then they had a reasonable expectation that they would be rewarded.”

But as millions of white collar workers have been laid off “in a capricious way,” have seen their pay and benefits reduced or are required to do more work without getting a pay raise, a different attitude is sweeping through America’s cubicles, he says.

“That old emotion – loyalty – gives way to an attitude of obedience,” he says. “And obedience is rooted in fear.”

If that fear becomes outweighed by anger, then unionization may become more appealing to white collar workers, Daniel says.

Still, that doesn’t mean these unions will look like they do currently, he says.

“Unions have often been in an adversarial position, and I don’t know that white collar workers will be that way,” he says. “I think they’re going to say that there just ought to be a way to decide what’s fair. These workers may want to express themselves through activism.”

Another reason unions may find a toehold in the professional ranks is the changing relationship between the white collar employees and their managers.

“Management authority has really been eroded over the last 20 years by Wall Street and investors who have now become the ones who dictate what success is,” Daniel says. “What this leads to is managers not attuned as closely to the worker, and they’re not influencing employee loyalty as before. Managers’ roles have really been undermined by other people. They’re really caught in the middle.”

Daniel says it’s important to remember that even though union membership has declined in the last 50 years, union influence shouldn’t be discounted.

“Labor unions have actually been much more successful than they have been portrayed,” he says. “A lot of companies voluntarily gave workers comparable pay and benefits as those gained through collective bargaining. It was a way for them to stop unions from coming in. But all the workers benefited – even the white-collar ones.”


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