When job openings are plentiful and workers in short supply, empowered employees can more effectively stand up for their interests. However, when opportunities are scarce and workers are desperate, the natural power differential between the owners of jobs and the people that need them is magnified. That’s why the renewed Republican effort to scuttle the ability of workers to organize in micro-unions is ill-timed and mean-spirited.
As the single mother of an only child, my mom used to joke that she stopped after one kid because she didn’t want to be outnumbered. It’s funny because although the power differential between adults and children is considerable, good parents aren’t generally worried that their kids will team up to harm them. Not every hierarchical relationship is as benevolent, though, especially out in the corporate world where profit is king. When job openings are plentiful and workers in short supply, empowered employees can more effectively stand up for their interests. However, when opportunities are scarce and workers are desperate, the natural power differential between the owners of jobs and the people that need them is magnified. That’s why the renewed Republican effort to scuttle the ability of workers to organize in micro-unions is ill-timed and mean-spirited.
In 2011, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in its Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile decision that contrary to previous decisions, small groups of workers in the health care sector could organize and form micro-unions within a single facility. Traditionally, bargaining units were held to represent “all workers in a given class or craft,” such as the employees of a single factory, or all the workers of a certain kind (say, janitors) across several locations in a company. The new ruling meant that smaller, non-majority groups of employees could unionize, such as certified nursing assistants at a nursing home facility, without consulting with the other employees.
While the NLRB assured legislators and employers that the ruling was meant to cover only workers in the non-emergency healthcare industry, the Mobile decision is the basis of the spread of micro-unions across many sectors in recent years.
Certainly, micro-unions have their flaws. They can create competition between departments in a single business, and make negotiations between employers and workers harder than dealing with a single union. (However, wouldn’t negotiations with a handful of micro-unions be easier than dealing with, say, a hundred individuals?) For their part, businesses seem to be worried that allowing micro-unions will make it easier for organized labor to gain a foothold, while simultaneously worrying that micro-unions won’t adequately represent every employee. Are they concerned about fair representation, or not?
It’s that last bit that seems the most hypocritical. Unions arose because employers didn’t provide adequate working conditions or wages for their workers. Perhaps it’s because forcing unions into an all-or-nothing position currently favors the anti-union preferences of many business owners and the Chamber of Commerce. Otherwise, it would seem logical for those who loudly raise the interests of the individual above that of the collective, and argue for local autonomy and “States’ Rights” over Federal authority, to favor the ability of even a few individuals to be able to unionize if they choose to do so, without being restrained by a greater mass of employees who might prefer not to.
The NLRB Mobile decision came in 2011, when the country was staggering from the effects of the Great Recession. (In some places, it still is.) Since the power differential in those days favored employers, who dictated company-friendly pay and conditions, micro-unions were a way to empower workers in a desperate environment. The job market is arguably better now. But is it so good that workers have closed the power gap and are in a better position to command living wages and better conditions in Trump country? He attracted a surprisingly strong union voter turnout by claiming to be their champion. Perhaps they will come to regret that decision. In the meantime, employers, much like my mom, seem awfully worried about being outnumbered.