Today the industrial workplace is very different from eight decades ago when the National Labor Relations Act was promulgated into law. Back then an adversarial culture of “us-and-them” was the norm in industry, with managers and workers mutually suspicious of each other.
Unionization was an effective way to give workers a collective voice when negotiating wages and working conditions and resolving employment disputes. The NLRA went one step further by making it illegal for any non-union workplace group to form. This was to prevent company leadership from creating artificial private unions to challenge the official ones.
We’ve come a long way since then. Private sector union membership is down to a mere 7 percent. Management generally has a much more collaborative approach than the top-down culture of yesteryear. In an environment that places increasing importance on employee satisfaction and individuality, feedback from workers is valued.
Twenty years ago events at an Indiana factory illustrated how unworkable this legislation was. Staff at an Elkhart plant were unhappy with a proposed adjustment to the bonus system. They were given a voice when management invited workers to join them in committees to propose solutions acceptable to everyone. Nonetheless, the federal government forced these teams to disband, citing the NLRA.
Observers have suggested that the Indiana case signalled the beginning of a shift toward all workers, whether unionized or not, finally having a voice in an increasingly participative workplace. Volkswagen’s German operation isn’t constrained by the same laws as the U.S., and employee advisory councils are the norm in all their plants. Last month in a secret ballot, staff at the Tennessee factory voted against joining United Auto Workers.
So what about that silent 93 percent of private sector employees who aren’t unionized? Workers still have legal recourse when it seems as though a dispute is not going to be amicably resolved. Attorneys that practice labor law are well-versed in the nuances of the industrial worker-manager relationship and keenly follow changes in state and federal legislation. They can act as independent representatives of either individuals or groups of workers in dispute situations.
Source: The Atlantic, “How to Give Workers a Voice Without Making Them Join a Union,” James Sherk, March 11, 2014