Amid Decline of Unions, Signs of Life

Earlier this week, we blogged about the anemic state of American organized labor. But while the overall trend for unions is gloomy, there are exceptions.

The Affordable Care Act is accelerating a pre-existing trend: doctors are increasingly favoring the relative stability of working for “large health-care entities” instead of running their own private practices. A Wall Street Journal op-ed explains how Obama’s health care reform is fueling this:

For cost control to be effective, the professional autonomy and independent clinical judgment of the physician and other providers must in some measure be sacrificed to standardization. [….] By reducing the reimbursement for certain office-based specialists while enhancing related payment to hospitals, the [Obama] administration is compelling more and more physicians–many of them with an any-port-in-a-storm fatalism–to seek employment with health systems or large physician groups.

This makes doctors far better targets for labor activists:

Leaders of the organized-labor movement already view service workers with nonexportable jobs as the last best hope of labor unions whose membership is at an all-time low. The truth is that physicians are now becoming service workers.

A potential unionization of doctors is still a fairly distant possibility. But efforts are unfolding to organize fast-food workers in New York now: starting in December, the city has seen what “experts say is the biggest effort to unionize fast-food workers ever undertaken in the United States,” according to the New York Times.

The Times also ran an article commenting on the effort, which made clear how bleak the outlook is for fast-food workers. Employees “at limited-service restaurants like McDonald’s [….] are the lowest-paid workers in the country, government figures show, typically earning $8.69 an hour. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning research organization, concluded that almost three-quarters of them live in poverty.”

The plight of the McDonald’s employee is by no means limited to the fast food sector: low-wage labor is only increasing as a proportion of the economy. As the article explains:

This poses an existential question for labor unions, which are struggling because of the loss of union jobs to automation and stiff competition, both from cheaper labor in the mostly union-free South and developing nations around the world: can they do something to improve workers’ lot?

They have in the past. A recent study by the International Labor Organization concluded that low-wage work was rare where unionization rates were high. In countries where more than half of workers belong to a union, only 12 percent of jobs pay less than two-thirds of the middle wage, on average.

That fact only makes it more frustrating that unions currently make the news more for their weakness than their strength. In January, American Airlines’ passenger service agents voted not to organize by a narrow margin. (According to Reuters, they are the only American Airlines workers who are not unionized.)

Collective bargaining is out of reach for the large majority of workers; the fight for fair wages for employees continues in the courts. Contact The Harman Firm today if you have any questions about employment law.