Image: SOURCES: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (all unions); Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., of Washington, D.C. (private- and public-sector data). Data based on nonagricultural employment except those for all unions after 1973, which are based on total employment. Private- and public-sector data available only from 1973 onward. The graph lines are not strictly comparable but are believed to measure overall trends reliably.
In the U.S., unions have the best songs, but for decades management has held the best cards. Even in the public sector, where unions have maintained their membership in recent times, they have relatively little power. Teachers, for example, are perhaps the best-organized government employees. Only 11 states grant them the right to strike; in 15 states they have no legal means to compel school boards to bargain. The other 24 states consider teacher strikes illegal but permit local governments to bargain with the boards.
In terms of labor rights, teachers fall midway between powerful industrial unions such as the United Auto Workers and certain groups not protected by federal labor regulations at all. Federal law, particularly the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act), compels employers to bargain with unions in good faith and protects workers from arbitrary firing for union activity. The situation of unprotected groups--which include farm laborers, domestics, supervisors, managers and independent contractors--is documented in detail by Human Rights Watch in its recent report Unfair Advantage. These employees, who may number up to 20 million, have minimal protection when trying to form a union. Although they may have some legal safeguards against arbitrary discharge under common law and antidiscrimination statutes, Human Rights Watch finds that an employer bent on discharging a worker for trying to form a union generally has the upper hand.
This article was originally published with the title U.S. Workers and the Law.