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November 12, 2013
What's Behind the Decline of Unions in Manufacturing?
By: Gary Kane

Data shows that organized labor in the manufacturing industry has been on the decline for years. Yet questions remain as to why. Is it because unions are outdated and irrelevant to today’s business environment? Or is it the result of companies threatening and intimidating workers? 

Perhaps the most contentious labor union activity taking place in the U.S. is a push by the United Auto Workers to unionize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

It’s no surprise that there is opposition to UAW’s bid to organize workers in a right-to-work southern state. But the fact that the most vocal opponents are the workers says a lot about the state of labor unions in manufacturing today.

American manufacturers have hired a half-million new workers since the end of 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, there were 4 percent fewer union members among the 13.9 million factory workers last year than there were in 2010, the data show.

“Collective action through unions remains the single best way for working people to effect change,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement about the data. “But our still-struggling economy, weak laws, and political as well as ideological assaults have taken a toll on union membership.”

Analysts attribute the decline of labor unions in manufacturing to several factors.

“A huge part of the union membership loss can be traced to the jobs shifted inshore to Mexico and offshore to China,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Membership loss is also attributed to employer opposition to unions, which has historically been a problem for organized labor, she told IMT. Some manufacturers counter organizing efforts with an assortment of threats, including pledges to relocate or shut down factories.

“Employers use photos of plants that have shut down to send a message. They might bring in a film crew from someplace in Asia to say they’re filming the operations ahead of a move,” she said. “And in manufacturing, these threats are credible.”

Management also warns employees that forming a union will force the company to cut back its workforce and benefits to remain competitive in the marketplace, Bronfenbrenner said.

Anti-union sentiment in manufacturing has contributed to the steady decline of organized labor. Private sector union membership fell to 6.6 percent last year — its lowest point since Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, said James Sherk, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a politically conservative think tank.

“The manufacturing recovery has largely bypassed unionized firms in recent years,” he wrote in assessing the state of labor unions.

Non-union manufacturers employed just as many workers last year as they did in 1977 (12.5 million), Sherk noted. During that period, unionized manufacturing employment fell from 7.5 million to 1.5 million — an 80 percent drop, he said.

“A majority of union members (51 percent) work in government,” Sherk wrote. “More than twice as many union members work in the U.S. Postal Service as in the domestic auto industry. This represents a significant historical reversal.”

The UAW is apparently trying to do something about that reversal. The autoworkers union has been focusing on a Mercedes-Benz factory in Vance, Ala.; a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.; and Chattanooga’s VW factory.

In Tennessee, the UAW says it has collected signed union cards from half of the 1,560 hourly workers at the VW plant. However, at least 560 workers have signed a petition saying they oppose the union, and management in Germany has said it would prefer that a “works council” be created for both the white-collar and production workers. A state legislative committee is calling for a union vote by secret ballot.

Tennessee is a right-to-work state. Though right-to-work statutes vary from one state to the next, they essentially ban union security clauses which require all workers to become dues-paying union members because they benefit from collective bargaining agreements.

Every southern state has a right-to-work statute. Ten have adopted right-to-work amendments to their state constitutions. Two states, Indiana and Michigan, enacted such measures last year, bringing the total number of right-to-work states to 24.

Union organizers have dubbed the laws “right to work for less.” The average worker in a right-to-work state earns $5,538 less than workers in other states, the AFL-CIO maintains.

Opponents of organized labor dispute the financial advantages of union membership and point to the large number of right-to-work states as evidence of a growing sentiment that unions are unnecessary. Anti-union consultant Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute, has called unions “anachronistic” and argues that the worker protections advocated by unions in the past are now law. Hence, unions are no longer needed, he maintains.

Many manufacturers say they have no choice but to fight efforts to organize workers because unions invariably increase the cost of doing business. Companies often hire anti-union consultants to persuade workers to reject a union bid, and such moves have proved successful. For example, Siemens hired an consultant last year to thwart an attempt by the United Steelworkers to organize a small factory in Maryland.  Workers there voted 24-15 to reject the union, according to National Labor Relations Board records.

Union proponents view the hiring of anti-union consultants and similar actions by employers as “union busting” tactics that deprive workers of having a voice at the workplace.

A 2011 study by Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner and Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University, found that:

  • Employers required workers to attend “captive audience meetings” with management in 89 percent of the campaigns started by unions to organize the workforce;
  • Workers are threatened with plant closings in 57 percent of the union campaigns and with loss of wages and benefits in 47 percent;
  • In 64 percent of the campaigns, workers are interrogated about how they and other workers intend to vote.
“The data show that employer campaigns against union certification elections begin much earlier than expected and continues all the way up to the election,” the researchers concluded.




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