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State of the Unions

Recently I got in touch with a journalist who was researching a story about how the election of Barack Obama may affect people’s income. I focused on one issue, the laws against wage discrimination. You may recall that, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. that employees who want to bring pay-discrimination lawsuits must do so within 180 days of the first unfair paycheck, even though (as the minority opinion noted) it often takes employees much longer to find out what their peers are earning.

Recently I got in touch with a journalist who was researching a story about how the election of Barack Obama may affect people’s income. I focused on one issue, the laws against wage discrimination. You may recall that, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. that employees who want to bring pay-discrimination lawsuits must do so within 180 days of the first unfair paycheck, even though (as the minority opinion noted) it often takes employees much longer to find out what their peers are earning. In response, the Democrats attempted to pass a law this year that would give employees 180 days after any unfair paycheck. The law was defeated, but after this month’s election its prospects in the next Congress seem more favorable.

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In my conversation with the journalist, I only briefly mentioned some other issues that may affect pay, but this week I would like to go into greater detail about one of them: unionization. Unions are known to improve workers’ wages. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that, in 2006, full-time wage and salary workers who were union members had median usual weekly earnings of $833, compared with a median of $642 for wage and salary workers who were not represented by unions—an advantage of almost 38 percent. Nevertheless, unionization has been in decline for several decades, and the political climate has been largely hostile to unions.

This week I came upon a dramatic indication of the political opposition to unions in the Bush Administration. Their FY 2009 budget request for the Department of Labor included $58 million dollars for the Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS), which is tasked with overseeing 23,000 union and union locals, ensuring their compliance with labor laws. Contrast this with the proposed budget for the Wage and Hour Division (WHD), which enforces labor laws that deal with minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, youth employment, family and medical leave, migrant workers, and several other issues. The proposed figure of $193 million for WHD is much greater than the figure for OLMS, but when you consider that WHD covers 7.4 million employers, the proposed budget comes to only $26.08 per employer, compared to $2,500 per union for OLMS.

The imbalance reflected in these numbers has grown over the eight years of the Bush presidency. During that time, staff of OLMS has increased by 9 percent, whereas staff of WHD has been cut by 21 percent. The contrast makes plain that the Bush administration’s distaste for regulation evidently has not applied to their scrutiny of labor unions.

How will unions fare under an Obama administration? One important change might be passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as the card-check bill, which allows a union to form at any workplace where a majority of workers have signed cards requesting one. As senators, both Barack Obama and Joe Biden co-sponsored this bill last year. It passed the House but was derailed by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. As of this writing, it’s still too early to know whether the next Senate will have a filibuster-proof majority of Democrats. Even without this majority, it’s possible that Republicans such as Arlen Specter (who co-sponsored the bill the last time it was presented) will come to its rescue this time.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has opposed the bill, arguing that employers should be able to ask for a secret-ballot vote on unionization. Supporters of the bill counter that secret-ballot votes are preceded by lengthy, expensive campaigns in which anti-union forces have the advantage. Possible compromise language would allow employers to request secret-ballot votes but limit the time and resources they can devote to campaigning against unionization or require employers to give union organizers access to the workplace.