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Thoughts on Union Developments

The past few weeks have been extremely newsworthy in regards
to unions, strikes, and the relationship between organized labor and the public
sector. I thought it would be useful to post some summaries of the more
interesting developments, as well as some of the takeaways for employers and
employees.

Probably the most headline grabbing development occurred in
Michigan, where lawmakers passed legislation that outlawed rules requiring
employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment
. The package of laws,
known as “right to work,” was a surprising change in a state that has long been
known as a bastion of union power. The legislation specifically bans any
requirement that public or private sector unions require employees to pay dues
or fees, with advocates claiming that the laws will increase business
flexibility and worker choice. Critics worry the laws will encourage workers
not to pay union dues, weaken unions, and drive down wages that were supported
through collective bargaining. Especially controversial was the way the laws
were passed in the final days of the state legislature’s session, a process
Democrats denounced as happening “under the cover of darkness.” The process
itself was incredibly heated, with State Police having to deploy “chemical munitions”
against protestors who attempted to rush the Senate floor
. In any respect, the
laws set up what is likely to be a very heated contest for political power in
2014.

In California, the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles
returned to full operation last week after harbor clerks and management ended
an eight-day strike
. The strike cost the region an estimated $8 billion in
revenue, with 13 ships left offshore because of the shutdown. Originally,
around 800 clerical workers went on strike to protest outsourcing of jobs, and
around 10,000 longshoreman refused to cross the picket line afterwards.
Retailers were especially concerned the strike would impact the shipment of
consumer goods to stores trying to stock up for the holiday shopping season,
given that 40% of all U.S. container imports flow through the two ports. The
major sticking point in the negotiations was an agreement over future staffing
levels, and the amount of control the union would have over the classification
of jobs lost to retirement.

Finally, city officials in Camden, New Jersey have responded
to the city’s all-time high homicide record by dissolving the municipal police
force. The city plans to hire a new county force in 2013
. The city claims it is
too poor to hire more police officers, while critics say it is just a
convenient measure to dissolve the police union. Currently, Camden only has 230
police officers to patrol a city of almost 100,000, despite the fact the police
budget accounts for 75% of the city’s funds. The city claims police benefits
make it too difficult to hire new officers. The new county force will allow the
city to get 150 more officers on the same budget by cutting expensive
entitlements, though critics just worry this is the end of collective
bargaining for law enforcement unions.

Overall, the issue of unions in the modern
economy doesn’t look to be going away. In the public sector, state and local
budgets have been stretched so thin that change is inevitable, but it is hard
for me not to agree with critics who worry that this is simply an excuse to do
away with collective bargaining and move to a world of temporary positions and
low benefits. In the private sector, I am even more skeptical. The history of
corporate America over the past 100 years has involved the private sector being
dragged, kicking and screaming, into doing what is right, whether in terms of
collective bargaining, environmental protection, consumer protection, corporate
fraud, or workplace discrimination. I worry that eliminating a union’s right to
collectively bargain may open that Pandora’s Box once again to some extent.
Realistically though, with the U.S. economy struggling to restart and the world
economy changing at such a rapid rate, employers need increased flexibility and
the chance to adapt. How to add in that adaptability without taking advantage
of workers in need of an income will be one of the great challenges facing
labor lawyers in the coming years. As always, please remember this post
represents my views and not those of the Erlich Law Office or its clients.