Unions suffered a resounding defeat in Wisconsin last week. They’re far from down and out, however. Unable to reverse their decline in membership under existing law, they are circumventing Congress and using the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to create an entirely new type of union. A new rule hatched by the Obama-appointed board, authorizes the creation of union cells—organizing a few employees within a company to gain a foothold—which will severely impact businesses.
Until recently, employees organized based on shared job characteristics—for example, all the hourly employees at a firm. The new practice allows micro-unions representing only a small minority of workers in a company. Instead of a grocery store’s employees having a union, the store could face separate unions for cashiers, shelf-stockers, and janitors.
The NLRB permitted this in its Specialty Healthcare decision last year, allowing organized labor to form unions by job title. A decision last month by one of the NLRB’s regional directors demonstrated just how harmful—and absurd—a policy this is. The regional director green-lit a union election at the Bergdorf Goodman department store. But most employees will not get to vote; only shoe salesmen will cast ballots. Not all shoe salesmen, however. Only those selling women’s shoes.
As the HR Policy Association explains:
The fact that hours, benefits (including the same health plans), and general productivity goals were common among all employees was dismissed because, among other reasons, the sale of women’s shoes ‘requires a distinct skill set from other sales associates due to the unique nature of the product they are selling.’
While the men’s shoe salesmen—or any other type of salesmen—at the store will not get a say in the union’s presence, these excluded workers will share in all the risks and downsides of unionizing. Strikes will also harm them, and if the union bankrupts the company, they will also lose their jobs.
With private-sector union membership down to 7 percent, labor leaders are desperate. Even the government unions are seeing workers quit en mass—when they have a choice. Columnist Charles Krauthammer described this lesson in Wisconsin:
Without the thumb of the state tilting the scale by coerced collection, union membership became truly voluntary. Result? Newly freed members rushed for the exits. In less than one year, AFSCME, the second-largest public-sector union in Wisconsin, has lost more than 50 percent of its membership.
Labor leaders and the NLRB have made several attempts to curb workers’ rights in recent years. They have tried to take away the secret ballot in union elections and to shorten the amount of time workers have to decide on unionizing. They have threatened to demand access to workers’ email addresses and phone numbers in workplaces that are targeted for unionization. The NLRB itself has its own scandals and has served as a revolving door for union big shots.
The board’s tactics are in step with the Obama Administration’s penchant for skipping Congress completely.
“The recent decision at Bergdorf Goodman is an example of the labor board’s doing through regulation what we ought to be doing through legislation on the floor of the Senate,” said Senator Johnny Isakson (R–GA), who introduced legislation last year that would reverse the NLRB’s decision on the so-called micro-unions.
The practice will have devastating consequences for businesses and workers alike. Management could face contract negotiations with multiple union cells under one roof, which “increases the likelihood of industrial unrest and workplace disputes as different unions with differing goals represent different employees,” said Fred Wszolek of the Workforce Fairness Institute.
In addition to divided workplaces, workers will face diminished professional opportunities. As Heritage’s James Sherk has explained, “Over time, unions destroy jobs in the companies they organize. In manufacturing, three-quarters of all union jobs have disappeared over the past three decades, while the number of non-union jobs has increased.”
With organized labor cells, workers would be stuck in their current roles without the chance to advance through departments. Fragmenting the workplace into multiple bargaining units will make it very difficult for workers to work their way up through departments. They wouldn’t have the opportunities that Joe McFarland had when he took an hourly job at Home Depot in 1993.
McFarland started out working in the electrical aisle. Over the next 20 years, he learned all he could about other departments in the store, worked hard—and got promoted. He rose from his hourly job to Western Division President, where he now oversees more than 440 stores and 78,700 employees in 13 states.
If the electrical aisle employees had chosen to unionize, McFarland could have been stuck there. He wouldn’t have had the opportunity to train across departments and move up into management.
But big labor’s strategy isn’t about growing skills and advancing careers. It’s about grasping for any amount of power—and union dues—they can grab.