Minority Union Bargaining - the Blue Eagle at Work
AS US UNIONS HAVE grown increasingly desperate an array
of proposed technical fixes have appeared. These are
generally tinkering at the margins that do not address
the fundamental problems that are destroying
unionization. Among these proposed technical fixes is
the idea of minority unions.
It may be that in some instances, radical energized
unions, such as the UE are able to make use of
structures that represent less than a majority of a
bargaining unit. But for most unions, this is not only
not a fix, it is deadly. I say this not based on theory,
but based on reality and evidence.
Take New Zealand - a country whose experience with laws
that promoted minority unions and other labor law
reforms I have studied for 15 years. Under its 1991 law,
which was modeled on Chicago School ideas, union numbers
plummeted from about 45% to under 20% in under 5 years.
There were a lot of features of that law that could have
explained the destruction of unionization in New Zealand
besides minority unions.
But about five years ago, New Zealand replaced that law
with what was intended to be a union-friendly labor law.
It included many features, such as union access to the
workplace, that should have made organizing and
representation easy and turned the tide. But it
continued the practice of minority unions.
The result has been a continuing slide in union
membership. The reasons for this are obvious. Nonmembers
free ride on the contracts unions negotiate, and this
despite the law's forbidding free riding. Employers use
the minority structure to divide and conquer, playing
members and nonmembers off against one another. And
finally, it is clear that New Zealanders just are not
that interested in joining unions in reality, regardless
of what they tell pollsters.
This experience tells me that at a minimum minority
unions are not a panacea and may even be the nail in
What must labor do? What must we all do? In my opinion,
the fundamental problem for unions is that the values
that unions need to survive are community, solidarity,
industrial justice, fair wages and working conditions,
workplace democracy, worker empowerment, and social
democracy. When we look around, it is clear these are
not values commonly found in mainstream America these
days. Instead, we see an acceptance of workplace and
social totalitarianism and dictatorship, and hyper-
individualism. When the Department of Homeland Security
was declared a union-free zone, the message was that
unions are unpatriotic and dangerous to our security.
And yet there was deafening silence and no rebuttal, not
even by and for those union brothers and sisters who
risked and gave their lives on 9/11. How low labor has
I believe that there is a hunger in the US for union
values, but no one is speaking for unions in terms of
union values. Change will not come easily. There must be
a collective effort to speak out in favor of these
values of democracy, dignity, and inclusion at every
turn and to commit to do this over the long haul.
Decades ago, the Right lost the war of ideas. As it
turned out that was only a battle, and since they have
regrouped and been winning battle after battle. It took
years and decades. The lesson is that this can be done,
but we must be dedicated and ever vigilant, letting no
opportunity slip away to change hearts and minds.
Professor of Law
Wayne State University