Unions were instrumental in creating the American middle class, and today they continue to empower millions of Americans to bargain for wages and benefits that are capable of sustaining a middle-class standard of living. Among workers in similar jobs, unionized employees are significantly more likely to earn middle-class wages;1 and have sick, family, and vacation leave policies, health care, and retirement plans.2 Unions also improve wages and job quality even for those who are not members: in areas and industries with a high degree of union representation, unions can exert upward pressure on industry standards across-the-board.3

In surveys, 53 percent of non-managerial, non-union workers say they would likely vote for a union in their workplace.4 Yet only 11.9 percent of the nation’s wage and salary workers were union members in 2010, and just 6.9 percent of private sector employees belonged to unions.5 While a number of factors, including shifts in employment away from the traditionally unionized manufacturing sector, contributed to the decline in union membership, one significant element is employer obstruction of workplace rights. 

Enacted in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act was aimed at encouraging the formation of unions and promoting collective bargaining. According to the NLRA, employees did not previously “possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract” because individual workers were at a disadvantage when attempting to negotiate working conditions with an employer that could organize as a corporation.6 This imbalance of power in the workplace would push down wages and reduce workers’ purchasing power, making recessions worse. To remedy the imbalance, the National Labor Relations Act gave employees the right to organize unions and bargain collectively.

Today, the system meant to defend the rights of employees to form unions no longer functions. Weak and slow-moving enforcement of labor rights allows employers to routinely violate the law, threatening and harassing employees who attempt to organize. Illegal threats, bribes, and even the firing of union organizers are commonplace.7 Employees who dare to stand up for their right to join a union can face years of unemployment when they are illegally fired, while employers face virtually no penalty for denying their employees’ basic legal rights. By strengthening penalties and replacing the easily abused mechanism of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections with a streamlined employee sign-up procedure, this policy, based on the Employee Free Choice Act considered by Congress in 2007, would restore Americans’ ability to choose union representation. In every workplace where a majority of employees want union representation, they could join easily, and begin to negotiate the pay and benefits that would enable them to enter the middle class.

Policy Design

  • Automatically recognize a union as the legitimate bargaining representative in a workplace when a majority of employees provide signed authorizations stating that they want to be represented by that union.
  • Increase penalties for violations of labor law: raise maximum fines to $20,000 per violation for employers who have willfully or repeatedly violated employees’ rights during an organizing campaign or first contract drive; triple the amount of back wages employees can receive if they are illegally fired or discriminated against for exercising their labor rights; require the courts to seek injunctions against employers, as well as unions, that violate labor laws.
  • To facilitate agreement on a first contract for employees after the union is recognized, enable either the union or management to refer any disputes about the contract to mediation if an accord has not been reached within 90 days after bargaining begins. If the mediator is unable to reach a deal within an additional 30 days, the dispute will go to binding arbitration.

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