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Labor Perspective From Columbia University Professor Alexander Hertel-Fernandez: Labor Law ‘Makes It Too Hard To Start Unions’ - Workers ‘Deserve A Bigger’ Voice

Published Thursday, January 30, 2020
by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez/Via CNN Business Perspectives
Labor Perspective From Columbia University Professor Alexander Hertel-Fernandez: Labor Law ‘Makes It Too Hard To Start Unions’ - Workers ‘Deserve A Bigger’ Voice

CNN Editor’s Note: Alexander Hertel-Fernandez is an Assistant Professor of international and Public Affairs at Columbia University, where he studies the politics of business, Labor and the American Political Economy.  He is the author most recently of State Capture: How Big Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—and the Nation, and is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.


Every year, I teach a class on Labor and Workplace Policy for Graduate Students at Columbia University - and every year, I begin class by asking students what comes to mind when they think about the Labor Movement.

When I first started teaching, students mainly described Unions as organizations that were once important, but probably out of date in the current economy.

"Good for people who made cars," quipped one student.

But this year the answers could not have been more different.

Thanks to a massive wave of strikes and new efforts to Unionize across tech companies and media outlets, my students saw Unions in a different light.

They were now interested in what Unions could offer them in terms of better wages and benefits and a voice on the job - and indeed, many were involved in the newly-formed Graduate Student Union at Columbia University fighting for improved health care benefits and more transparent employment policies.

And this new interest is shared by much of the American Workforce.

The percentage of Non-Union Members expressing interest in joining a Union shot up from around a third of Workers in the 1970s and 1990s to nearly half of all Workers in 2017, according to polling conducted by researchers at MIT.

Yet, the discouraging reality is that current Labor Law makes it all but impossible for these Workers to form or join Unions at their jobs.

And even in the rare cases where Workers do manage to start Unions, these organizations are sharply limited in the representation that they can provide to Workers.

Start with the fact that only about one in 10 Non-Union Workers say they would know how to form a Union if they wanted toaccording to polling I’ve conducted together with researchers at MIT.

That's understandable because the process is long, complicated and risky for Rank-and-File Workers.

Workers often endure threats, mandatory Anti-Union meetings, surveillance and even physical intimidation from their employers in the protracted process necessary to hold an election for Union Representation.

Although employers are legally barred from disciplining or firing Workers involved in the Union Organizing process, many employers do so anyway because the penalties are so low.

An employer that illegally fires a Union Organizer is liable only for paying the Worker's back pay - minus any income the Worker has earned in the meantime.

One recent report estimated that employers are charged with violating Federal Law in more than 40% of Union Elections.

And if Workers manage to win Union Elections against these long odds, they still have to reach a first contract.

Many employers drag the process on for years until Workers lose steam.

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