It is no secret that the American labor movement is in trouble. Union membership in the US has steadily declined the last 50 years from one-third of all workers to only one in ten.
Not coincidentally, this decline mirrors the ascendancy of neoliberal political and economic programs, which have, by and large, been antagonistic to labor unions. So-called “free trade” deals have shifted union-heavy manufacturing jobs away from the US to countries with few-to-no worker or environmental protections, while market fundamentalist think tanks and legal organizations have waged a more insidious campaign to undermine and ultimately destroy collective bargaining and other workers rights.
Perhaps just as important at the ground level, an entire industry has been fostered to beat back union drives at the workplace. Under US law, unions are still allowed to organize workers and still have some of the original protections, but management often responds to a union drive by hiring outside union-busting “consultants” to prevent a union from forming.
How those consultants are paid and used has always been murky. But a new rule announced today will force management to disclose more information about so-called “persuaders.”
Under the new rule, employers and their contractors will have to acknowledge any indirect “persuading” that was done and the fee structure for it. For example, if a lawyer helps a company craft a video presentation that paints unionizing as a bad idea, or drafts a speech for a manager, then both parties will have to inform the agency that they had a relationship and report how much money changed hands.
In a call with reporters ahead of the rule’s announcement, Labor Secretary Tom Perez said the idea behind the rule was basic transparency. If an employer’s message during a union campaign is being shaped by outsiders, he said, then the employees who will be voting in the union election have a right to know that.
Needless to say, the business community is less than thrilled about this idea, and for good reason. Operating in secret has helped many companies stop union drives.
Unions drive wages up and, as recently demonstrated with Walmart, many businesses rely on short-changing workers to maintain and increase profitability. If workers are able to collectively bargain, expect similar heartbreak on Wall Street.
Forcing employers to disclose more about their payments to union-busting companies is unlikely to seriously roll back the changes of the last 50 years, but it will provide an opportunity for those trying to create a 21st century labor movement to have more of a fair fight.