Politics & Policy

The Decline of Unions

Union members protest Michigan’s right-to-work bill, December 6, 2012.
The NLRB recess-appointment decision is only the latest blow.

A couple of network cameras and tripods sat outside the offices of the National Labor Relations Board here on Friday afternoon in the midst of a snowstorm. The NLRB doesn’t usually merit such attention, but it was pushed into the spotlight after Friday’s unanimous decision by a D.C. Court of Appeals panel declaring three of President Obama’s recess appointments to the NLRB unconstitutional.

No one followed the demise of the NLRB appointees with more interest than labor unions. The decision likely means that hundreds of decisions that the five-member board was able to issue only because the unconstitutional members helped meet a quorum requirement are now invalid. Richard Cordray, who was recess-appointed to head the new Consumer Financial Protective Bureau mandated by the Dodd-Frank law, may also now no longer be in office legally and could see all decisions he participated in declared void.

#ad#Unions celebrated after helping secure President Obama’s reelection in November, but it’s been all downhill since then. December saw Michigan, the birthplace of industrial unionism in the 1930s, become a right-to-work state, as GOP state legislators became emboldened by the failure of a well-financed union ballot measure that would have cemented pro-union laws into the state’s constitution.

This week the bad news accelerated. On Tuesday, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who had announced her departure on January 9, cleaned out her desk and flew back home to California, leaving the department in the hands of a caretaker deputy — an unusual move, since most cabinet secretaries stay on until a successor is in place.

On Wednesday, the Labor Department reported that during President Obama’s first term, the percentage of workers belonging to unions declined faster than it did during the two terms of President George W. Bush. To be specific, the unionization rate is now 11.2 percent of all workers. Private-sector unionization fell from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent, and the government unionization rate dropped from 37 percent to 35.9 percent.

On Thursday, Majority Leader Harry Reid gave up on his attempt to gut the Senate’s filibuster. While new rules will mean that some controversial nominees will find it a little easier to be confirmed, the ability of a determined minority to hold up nominations it finds unacceptable has been maintained. “President Obama will find getting new pro-union NLRB appointees confirmed very difficult during his second term,” predicts Mark Mix of the National Right to Work Foundation.

Then came Friday’s court ruling on the recess appointments to the NLRB. Each of the three appointments had been made in January 2012, while the Senate was holding pro forma sessions but still conducting some business, and each was made to fill a vacancy that didn’t occur during a recess.

“With the failure to pass the ‘card-check’ measure to allow unions to organize without secret-ballot elections, the unions were counting on pro-union Obama appointees to do their bidding through administrative rulings and decisions,” a former top official in the Bush Labor Department told me. Now, he says, hundreds of pro-union rulings made over the last year are almost certainly invalid and the board can’t do further business until the Senate confirms new appointees.

Organized labor still holds many political cards, especially the hundreds of millions of dollars they collect through mandatory dues that can be funneled into politics with only sketchy accounting required. But even that advantage can be negated if opponents of union power put a spotlight on its excesses, as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker told the National Review Institute’s Washington meeting this weekend. “Yes, people want a level playing field, and what we found in Wisconsin was that included special privileges union bosses were using to stay and power and remain insulated from their membership,” Walker told me in a recent interview.

Among Walker’s reforms were an end to the mandatory collection of union dues for most public-sector workers and a requirement that public-sector unions be reauthorized every year by a vote of their members. Since the reforms went into effect in early 2011, many union locals have seen their dues income decline by over 50 percent as members decide to give themselves a pay increase by keeping their dues money.

In addition to threats to their political clout, trends in the U.S. economy that are undermining the importance and relevance of unions are continuing. Unions are in an “inexorable decline,” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News this week. It may be a slow decline, but it seems to be consistent. The last time union membership in the private sector was below the 7 percent it is today was before FDR’s New Deal entrenched mandatory collective bargaining into law through the Wagner Act.

If past giants of labor such as Samuel Gompers, George Meany, and John L. Lewis were alive today, they would no doubt shake their heads at just how much today’s hidebound and short-sighted union leaders have abandoned labor’s traditions and ignored the interests of union members to pursue political influence. Now even that influence appears increasingly shaky and unsustainable in today’s economic and political climate.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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