AP, NY Times Lament Low Union Participation

     Nearly 90 percent of American workers do not belong to a labor union, according to new data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet when reporters for The New York Times and Associated Press reported the development, they relied heavily on labor union sources to push a biased storyline about why so few Americans look for the union label.

     AP’s Will Lester quoted four men in his January 25 story, two labor union activists and two college professors, all of whom lamented the historically low 12 percent of Americans who pay union dues. None of Lester’s sources suggested that employees are failing to join unions out of economic self-interest; instead, the AP writer chalked up the low membership in large part to employer intimidation. Neither critics of labor unions nor business leaders were cited to rebut the charges of intimidation. 

     The Times’ Greenhouse cited just one source in his January 26 story, AFL-CIO’s Stewart Acuff, who insisted that “employer resistance” was intimidating would-be union members from organizing. Greenhouse likewise offered no rebuttal to the intimidation charge.

     The Times reporter also noted that “labor unions hope they can reverse their decline” with prospects of passing the “Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the right to unionize through an easier, less antagonistic method – signing pro-union cards.”

     But Greenhouse’s characterization display’s the media’s ignorance about how unionization works, one right-to-work advocate and labor expert told the Business & Media Institute (BMI).

     Unions are organized along an essentially political process, by the rule of a simple majority in a shop vote, Stan Greer of the National Right to Work Committee (NRWC) told BMI. In other words, a workplace becomes unionized when a majority of its workers agree to organize a union. But in doing so, Greer told BMI, the rights of the workers uninterested in joining a union are abrogated. They have to join the union and be bound by its collective bargaining, even if that’s the last thing they wanted.

      “Somehow the union officials want to keep the political model but they want to drop the antagonism, that makes no sense,” added Greer, a senior research associate for NRWC’s National Institute for Labor Relations Research. In fact, he added, “The basis of a political system is antagonism.”

     Greer said his organization favors dropping “the political model” and to “make unions represent only those who join it.”

     What’s more, Greer told BMI, the card-check system proposed under the Employee Free Choice Act would run counter to the interests of individual employees, because it could prevent employers from being able to explain to workers the disadvantages of unionization.

     For example, unionized pay scales usually don’t allow for higher pay for exceptional performance. Since union pay schedules bargain collectively for wages, they remove the ability of individual workers to negotiate a higher salary on the basis of their productivity, Greer told BMI, adding that even pro-union economists have conceded as much.

     Greer pointed to Richard Rothstein of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, who wrote in the Summer 1993 American Prospect magazine that unions raise the “wages of lower paid workers” to levels “above the market rate, with the increase offset” in part by “reducing pay of the most productive workers.”