A Blow to Labor

Thursday, October 5, 2006

MEMBERSHIP IN labor unions is falling across the industrialized world, and some of this fall may be inevitable. With a few exceptions, such as the hotel industry, it's become hard for unions to negotiate substantial pay raises without endangering the viability of companies: The companies have to compete against rivals that aren't unionized, frequently because they're overseas. Some of the decline, though, is not inevitable but rather is due to one-sided political and legal decisions, such as Tuesday's disturbing ruling from the National Labor Relations Board.

In a split decision, the three board members appointed by President Bush outvoted the two originally appointed by President Bill Clinton in ruling that relatively junior workers can be defined as "supervisors," thus restricting their right to join a union. The case involved "charge nurses" who assign colleagues to care for particular patients but who lack the power to promote, discipline or influence the pay of the other nurses. As the dissenting opinion argued, this minimalist definition of supervision could deprive whole categories of workers of the ability to organize: Teachers, for example, direct teachers' aides.

The decision exacerbates a legal environment that makes organizing workers unduly difficult. In other recent cases, the labor relations board has narrowed the definition of workers who may organize, excluding graduate students who work as teaching assistants and disabled people who work full time but whose contracts could be said to be rehabilitative. In industries where the right to organize is not yet disputed, employers nonetheless block attempts to establish unions by firing workers who favor them; although this is illegal, the penalties are too small and tardy to serve as a deterrent.

Critics of unions are right that they can bring disadvantages. They can impede innovation and slow the introduction of new technology. But in an age of growing inequality, the decline of unions also has disadvantages: De-unionization explains about 15 percent of the increase in wage inequality among men over the past quarter-century, according to David Card of the University of California at Berkeley. In sum, the costs and benefits of unions vary from industry to industry, which is all the more reason why workers should be free to decide whether to join one.

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