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Viewpoint: Changing economy, stronger laws render labor unions obsolete

Claudia Johnson
Thursday, Jan 3, 2008

In the December 2007 issue the CBJ reported that employees at a Crossville manufacturing facility had decided to unionize.

The editorial staff of the Cumberland Business Journal questions the wisdom and necessity for such action in the Upper Cumberland. Indeed, we feel strongly that labor unions may have long outlived their original purpose, and in today’s economic climate may, in fact, be a detriment not only to the employees and employers but to regional economic development.

Industrial recruitment officials tell us that one of the first questions prospective employers ask when considering a location for an industry or business is about the presence of unionized facilities already operating in the region. The quantity and activity level of labor unions raise a red flag to employers, and for good reason.

Despite the early positive impact of unions in this country, as the decades since their founding have passed, many unions seem to have helped workers exploit employers. Often unions can have the power to impede a company’s ability to compete and thrive. A business may be facing financial woes yet finds that it cannot remain competitive because of the inflexibility of its unions and their refusal to compromise to ensure survival.

“Unions are victims of their own success,” suggests, adding, “Unions raised their wages substantially above the wages paid to nonunion workers. Therefore, many union-made products have become so expensive that sales were lost to less expensive foreign competitors and nonunion producers.”

An additional concern for employers is the human resources issue inherent with union presence. Often union workers can’t advance much or at all on their merits but must progress within the limits defined by union contracts. Employers may have trouble weeding out ineffective employees if they belong to unions. Unfortunately, employees wowed by promises of higher pay and increased benefits are often misled about the practical aspects of being a union member.

For instance, according to legal sources, the union is not contractually liable to the workers, and its promises are not legally enforceable. Collective bargaining does not guarantee any specific outcome of contract negotiations between union leaders and corporate management.

Since Tennessee is a “right to work” state, employees in a unionized workplace cannot be forced to pay “agency fees” to the union if they refuse to be union members. However, when a union is voted in by employees, it becomes the exclusive representative for all of the employees in the bargaining unit, including those who did not want it. Therefore, individuals are prevented from attempting to negotiate for themselves if they think they can get a better schedule or pay scale. Further, they may not pursue a grievance or complaint with management on their own, and the union representative has the right to be present even if the employee does not want them there.

Employees may think that a strike can force management to give in to demands, but there is no guarantee that if a worker strikes on economic terms that his job will be waiting when the strike is over since the company has every right to hire replacements. By Tennessee law, striking employees are not entitled to unemployment benefits. Many times employees never recoup, even if there is a wage increase, financial compensation lost during the strike. Plus, if a union member crosses the picket line, contracts between union and union members provide that the union can bring a civil action against the employee and a fine can be ordered by the court.

The U.S. Department of State has recorded a steady decline in union membership. While more than one-third of employed people belonged to unions in 1945, only 12 percent were union members in 2006.

The evolution of labor laws now protect employees against unfair practices, unsafe work conditions, abuse, harassment and discrimination, empowering the American worker more greatly than ever before in history.

In light of these developments and facts, has the need for organized labor long passed? We think so, at least in the Upper Cumberland and throughout Tennessee. Does that mean there will be no more union activity in our region? Unfortunately, probably not. As a result, we will certainly continue to inform our readers (businesses) of such activity when necessary. We just hope that it continues to be a rare occurrence, as it has been for the past three years of our existence.

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