Unions And Collective Bargaining

Larry Price
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Wednesday - March 02, 2011
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Lots of misinformation about public unions is being spread locally because of the political battle going on between Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin.

The law is clear on what unions, public or private, can do regarding collective bargaining.

To begin with, until about 1930, there were no special labor laws. Employers were not required to engage in collective bargaining with employees, and were virtually unrestrained in their behavior toward unions. If you want to read about how bad it was back then, check the records of the historically significant Homestead Strike in 1892. Andrew Carnegie was the head of Carnegie Steel Co. based in Homestead, Penn., which, at the time, produced a quarter of the world’s steel and was one of the most powerful and influential company’s in the world.

In July 1892, the contract between Carnegie Steel Co. and the steel union expired and, poised to rebel against the labor union, Carnegie hired a union buster, Henry Clay Frick, as manager to operate the steel mill in Homestead with non-union workers at lower wages. The union planned to strike, and Frick had the steel mill surrounded with barbed wire, preventing entrance into the town and factory. He then contracted the Pinkerton Detective Agency to hire a private army of 300 men to seize the factory. A battle ensued, and people from both sides were killed. At that point, the government went in - 4,000 Pennsylvania militia troops - allowing Carnegie to hire non-union workers at lower wages. In four months the steel mill at Homestead was up and running. It effectively shifted the power to management and corporations and crippled labor unions for the next 40 years (Relin, D. the strike of the century. pp.129 (6))

During the early days of union organizing, there was little talk about public unions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was unyielding in his opposition to public employee unions, especially the efforts to unionize postal workers. The new era union activity was the passage of the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932. This act encouraged union activity. It guaranteed the right of each employee to bargain collectively, “free from interference, restraint or coercion.” In 1935, the Wagner Act was passed to add teeth to the Norris-La Guardia legislation. The swing back toward management happened with passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. It brought in a period of modified encouragement coupled with regulation. It was President John F. Kennedy who put the power back in the workers’ corner when he issued the first in a line of executive orders that allowed collective bargaining for federal employees (Ex. Order 10988, 1962).

Public-sector labor relations differ widely among the 50 states. Several don’t even have bargaining laws, and few prohibit at least some occupations from bargaining. Most prohibit strikes, especially in the police and fire sectors where arbitration is prescribed. And while police and firefighters cannot strike, teachers can, with proper notification, fact-finding and voluntary arbitration.

And while the public-sector unions are regulated, they have their greatest bargaining success in achieving their goals by linking bargaining issues with public outcomes. They actively support candidates who favor increasing publicly provided programs because it is consistent with achieving union goals, and also with having elected officials sympathetic to public-sector union interests, which also proves helpful during negotiations.

The pubic and private unions have paid a heavy price for the laws that govern their activities. No one should expect them to give up any of them without a fight.

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