Labor Power Softens But Still Lingers

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recent recall-election victory over a union-backed opponent may serve as another black eye for the U.S. labor unions. But employers shouldn’t consider unions down for the count, experts say.

Walker, who defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett , had been strongly opposed by the state’s public-sector unions because of his support of a bill that curtailed collective bargaining rights.

Walker’s win followed a recent federal ruling that threw out a National Labor Relations Board rule that would have allowed for faster votes on union elections, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  Unions historically have a much higher success rate in elections if the vote is held 15 days or less after the request, according to a Bloomberg Government report.

For unions, the recent events add to a growing trend of decline in membership and influence.

“[Unions] have declined to the point of irrelevance in most workplaces,” Peter Cappelli of The Wharton School told Human Resource Executive Online. “They are having a hard time hanging onto whatever [contract] arrangements they have.”

Government statistics back up Cappelli’s view. Slightly more than 20 percent of U.S. workers belonged to unions in 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 2011, that number had shrunk to 11.8 percent, according to HREO.

As union power wanes, labor leaders in Wisconsin worry that Walker will push for legislation that would make Wisconsin join 23 other states as a “right-to-work” state, which would bar employers from agreeing to contracts with unions that force employees to join the organization, according to The Capital Times of Madison, Wis.

Still, unions continue to carry political weight, Cappelli noted.

“There are still, in absolute terms, a lot of people who are union members — so they have feet on the ground,” Cappelli told HREO. “They can run voter-registration drives, and they can help get out the vote — so they will still be a force in the election.”

The days of powerful unions dictating terms to employers — public or private — however, may be at an end, he said.

“Unless the political climate in the U.S. changes quite radically, it’s hard to imagine any scenarios where this turns around,” Cappelli said.


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