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Work has changed since the National Labor Relations Act became law more than eighty years ago. But as Cynthia Estlund’s chapter in this volume discusses, the NLRA has proven mostly impervious to amendment, with the significant exceptions of 1947’s Taft–Hartley Act and 1959’s Landrum-Griffin Act. The contrast with the public sector could not be sharper: where the NLRA has been stable, states have changed the laws governing concerted activity and collective bargaining by public employees relatively frequently. Likewise, an increasing list of states have raised the minimum wage and implemented other employment protections for both private- and public-sector workers, including paid sick days, predictable scheduling, and more.
The well-known decline in union density in the United States masks an important divide: the union membership rate for public sector workers (34.4 percent in 2017) is more than five times higher than that of private sector workers (6.5 percent in 2017). That divide is even more remarkable when one considers that some states lack public sector collective bargaining statutes or even affirmatively prohibit public sector collective bargaining, and therefore have considerably lower public sector union density than states with robust bargaining regimes. Yet this divide is not explained by workers’ own preferences in the public and private sector; the labor economist Richard Freeman has found that significant numbers of nonunion workers desire union representation, and more recent polling shows robust support for unions in general. If workers’ own desires for union representation do not explain the gap between private and public sector representation, then what does? This chapter explores a pair of related likely culprits: private employers’ and outside groups’ abilities to fight union drives through highly effective and legal “union avoidance” campaigns, and weak deterrents that give employers few reasons to fear committing unfair labor practices or violating the “laboratory conditions” doctrine while persuading employees to vote against union representation.
Over the last fifty years in the United States, unions have been in deep decline, while income and wealth inequality have grown. In this timely work, editors Richard Bales and Charlotte Garden - with a roster of thirty-five leading labor scholars - analyze these trends and show how they are linked. Designed to appeal to those being introduced to the field as well as experts seeking new insights, this book demonstrates how federal labor law is failing today's workers and disempowering unions; how union jobs pay better than nonunion jobs and help to increase the wages of even nonunion workers; and how, when union jobs vanish, the wage premium also vanishes. At the same time, the book offers a range of solutions, from the radical, such as a complete overhaul of federal labor law, to the incremental, including reforms that could be undertaken by federal agencies on their own.