The Law @ Work

2015: A Good Year for Organized Labor

by Timothy F. Murphy

While Organized Labor remains beset by many serious challenges, including stagnant membership, it can look back on 2015 as a successful year in which three of its long-term goals came to fruition. It also made real progress on several other important objectives.

Goals Achieved

Quickie Elections

After a previous effort failed, the NLRB managed to change its election rules in April 2015 to reduce the time it takes to hold a secret-ballot union election. Early indications are that rule changes have succeeded in significantly expediting elections and that these “quickie” elections have modestly boosted union win rates.

Unions had long complained that, under the prior rules – when most elections occurred within thirty-eight days – employers had the time to threaten and/or induce employees to vote against unionization. Conversely, employer groups contend that the new rules spawn ambush elections designed to prevent employers from exercising their free speech rights so as to deprive employees of getting all the facts before they vote.

Organized Labor made quicker elections a priority years ago, and in 2015 it got its wish.

The New “Joint Employment” Standard

Organized Labor has sought an easier path to organizing the nation’s growing contingent workforce for years. In 2015, the NLRB may have delivered such a path when it revised its standard for determining when a company becomes “a joint employer” of the workers of another company. In an August ruling, the NLRB ruled that a company that has the right to control the terms of conditions of employment over another company’s workers was a “joint employer” of those workers, even if it did not actually exercise that right to control.  This new standard will have its biggest impact in in the staffing industries and in those industries where the franchise model is prevalent.

This controversial decision may still be overturned on appeal or by legislation. If not, it could energize unions and induce temporary workers to seek to unionize knowing that the host employer – perhaps a large resource rich corporation – may be on the hook at the bargaining table.

Electronic Signatures for Organizing

In another sought-after step to make it easier for Organized Labor to organize workers, the NLRB’s General Counsel decided in September that unions no longer will need to gather employees’ signatures on authorization cards before they can file an representation election petition with the NLRB.

Although minimum verification requirements have been set, questions remain about authentication of online electronic signatures. This change is designed to make it easier for unions to obtain elections with the hope that more elections will yield more dues-paying union members.

Progress Made

The Fight for $15

When Organized Labor got behind the Fight for $15, few people outside the labor movement gave it any chance at succeeding. It still may not, but it has gotten people’s attention on all sides of the issue. Its tangible successes have largely been limited to a few isolated – though large – cities, but it gained traction in 2015 on the streets and elsewhere. Outwardly the focus has been on raising the minimum wage, but for Organized Labor the real focus is to organize more workers in these traditionally low-paying industries. Time will tell if the momentum gained in 2015 will be enough to sustain it.

Labor’s Southern Strategy

Some – inside and outside the labor movement – have remarked that the future of labor unions in this country rests on whether Southern workers buy into the union message. Until recently there has been little reason to believe they will. This year, Organized Labor made some inroads among Southern workers when a relatively small group of Volkswagen workers in Tennessee voted to join the UAW. Of course, this follows a stinging defeat for the UAW in 2014 when a larger group of employees voted not to join. The progress was slight here but Big Labor’s work in the South continues because the payoff would be so big.

What Does 2016 Have in Store?

The biggest thing to happen in 2016 for Organized Labor won’t actually hit home until January, 2017. Unions will devote money and volunteers to influence the outcome of the Presidential election in November 2016 because the election will likely determine whether unions can continue to play offense or will have to transition to defense for the next four years. The challenges affecting Organized Labor are too fundamental to be decided on which party controls the White House and the Congress, but the election’s results will likely dictate whether unions can build on the gains made during the Obama Administration or whether they must hunker down to protect them.

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