Strengthening workers’ right to organize is 50 years overdue

The union election underway at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, has caught national attention because of how significant a win would be for workers in the South and across the country. Even President Biden has weighed in on the importance of unions, proclaiming in a new video that workers should have a free choice to organize without interference or threats from their employer—a presidential endorsement that is without precedent in our lifetimes. This week, the House of Representatives is scheduled to debate and presumably pass comprehensive legislation—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—to strengthen workers’ ability to join together and form unions to negotiate for better pay, safety protections, and fairness on the job.

This newfound attention to the importance of workers having collective power to bargain with their employers is welcome, but it is long overdue—more than 50 years overdue.

The fact is, Amazon is using tactics to fight its workers in Bessemer, Alabama—thinly veiled threats, mandatory meetings in which management rails against the union, hiring third-party professional union busters—that are standard fare in the employer playbook, and have been for decades. Employers fully realize and take advantage of fundamental, structural weaknesses in our federal labor law that is supposed to protect and promote workers’ freedom to organize unions.

We recently co-authored a paper that shows, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, employers had learned how to exploit the weaknesses in the National Labor Relations Act to block union organizing. Employers realized the law has no teeth—it literally has no monetary penalties against employers who illegally fire union activists or otherwise interfere with workers’ rights. Under the guise of “free speech,” employers are allowed to hold one-sided “captive audience” meetings, where management criticizes and lobbies against forming a union, often predicting layoffs and strikes if workers unionize. Yet the union isn’t allowed in the room, and companies frequently forbid workers from speaking up or exclude pro-union workers from the meeting. Employers routinely bend and break the law. A recent Economic Policy Institute report found that in four out of 10 organizing efforts, workers have to file charges to try to stop their bosses’ illegal activity. In up to a third of elections, employers are charged with illegally firing union supporters.

Meanwhile, employers legally block union organizers from their property, depriving workers of the ability to hear from organizers at the workplace. Amazon took it a step further, and persuaded the county to change the traffic lights outside its facility in Bessemer, Alabama, to cut down on the amount of time workers could talk with union supporters through car windows as they drove to work.

The 1970s also saw the growth of the anti-union consultant industry. In the early 1970s, there were only a few union-busting consultants—third-party hired guns that employers bring in to advise them on how to defeat organizing drives. By the end of the 1970s, there were hundreds, and these consultants were making millions of dollars each year stopping workers from organizing. Because of a loophole in the law, workers aren’t able to get prompt information about the third-party union busters their employers have hired to campaign against the union, yet these union busters are ubiquitous—including at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama.

Workers—both union and nonunion—have borne the brunt of these actions. The erosion of collective bargaining has been one of the largest single factors driving wage suppression and accounts for an 8% decline in a typical worker’s hourly wage since 1979. Income inequality is now at historic proportions and is wreaking havoc on workers’ lives, exacerbated further by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rebuilding worker power and collective bargaining is central to our ability to provide robust wage growth for the vast majority of workers.

And it’s not as if workers didn’t organize because they lacked interest in organizing. In the 1970s, women and people of color powered a new wave of union organizing, gaining momentum from the civil and women’s rights movements, but employers blocked their efforts. Today, there is a large gap between the percentage of nonunion workers who say they want a union (48%) and the percentage of workers who are covered by a union contract (12%).

The barriers faced by the Amazon workers in Bessemer are real, and they are serious. But they are not new. For more than 50 years, corporations and their trade associations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have blocked legislation to fix fundamental weaknesses in our labor law and give workers a real choice about forming a union. It’s time—it’s 50 years past time—for that to change.