Post Mortem: Labor Back to the Board

NLRB Seal

NLRB Seal

New Orleans The Republicans are clear that unions have a target on their backs.  Labor law reform was never alive, especially not carrying the weight of “card check” recognition or mandatory first contract arbitration, and is now relegated to the dreamscape.  They promise worse to come, and they have the votes to do it.  Not necessarily in Congress where the President and the Senate ought to still be worth something, but unfortunately in the states where they eroded important areas of labor strength in the Midwest with a governor in Ohio and pickups in Indiana and Illinois, and potentially even the West, if they take the Governor’s chair in places like Washington, and even in Pennsylvania where they also acquired a big ticket governor.

The most effective labor organizing over the last several decades has involved winning bargaining rights and good contracts for public employees at the state level as well as winning bargaining rights for informal workers providing home health and home day care in numerous states.  The requirements for these strategies to work match strong worker support with compliant political will.  The recession has already cut the number of public and publicly supported jobs in both of these areas which will mean a loss of more than a million dues paying members over the next several years, and that also erodes one of our last bulwarks of strength and, frankly, resources.

All of which will either drastically shrink the map for new organizing or force unions back to the boards, which in this case unfortunately means figuring out a way to survive and grow under the arcane and difficult folkways and rules of the NLRB.

Piling up the bad news was the announcement of a close loss by the flight attendants union for representation rights at Delta Airlines by a couple of hundred votes.  The good news, thanks to the Obama administration, had been the fact that a union under a National Mediation Board election no longer had to win by a majority of all employees in the unit, but only by a majority of all of those voting (similar to the NLRB procedures).  This defeat was a setback since it was the first big election under the new rules, but there are a number of other elections pending, so there’s hope here.  No doubt the Republicans will put this on their list as part of the rollback, but it won’t go anywhere.

Many unions didn’t need to wait for the memo and have already started slowly moving in this direction realizing there was little hope for reform.  According to the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA):

“Unions participated in 221 more resolved representation elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board during the first half of 2010 than the same period in 2009, but the percentage of elections won by unions decreased somewhat, according to NLRB data analyzed by BNA PLUS, BNA’s research division.

Unions won 69.2 percent of the 812 private sector elections held in the first six months of 2010, compared to 72.8 percent of 591 elections held in the same time period last year.

The number of workers eligible to vote in board-supervised representation elections increased from 32,019 in the first six months of 2009 to 50,801 during the first half of 2010. The number of workers organized by unions through NLRB elections also increased from 23,561 in the first half of 2009 to 32,725 in the same period of 2010.”

Close to 70% is not bad, and better than it was a decade ago, which says that targeting has continued to improve.  Obviously losing a million members will not be offset by filing for elections for 100,000 workers in 2010 and wining representation rights for 65000, but you have to have a horse to beat a horse, and at least some unions are saddling up.

This is not a “winning” strategy, but a survival strategy, and coupled with corporate pressure where we can still find vulnerabilities and geographic leverage, where there are still small islands of political strength, we might be able to hang on until, we get our act together and make a real plan.

The clock is ticking though and our time is running out and now the Huns are at the door.

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