School of Public Policy Capstones

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The American labor relations system does not adequately provide employee representation to the degree demanded by employee preferences. Moving to a nonexclusive representation system would extend the right to organize and collectively bargain to many workers who cannot practically exercise their rights, but should be implemented incrementally by allowing minority unions where a majority representative is not already certified. This change to the interpretation of labor law would undoubtedly increase union membership and density, but may also reduce the conflictual nature of American labor relations and lead to labor force that is more productive for employers and more stable for employees.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 governs labor relations in the private, non-agricultural sector (excluding the railway and airline sectors covered under the Railway Labor Act of 1926). After the NLRAʼs passage, millions of workers joined unions to negotiate improved compensation and working conditions with their employers. In the years before and immediately after the NLRAʼs passage, workers commonly joined unions by signing up for membership and collectively bargaining a contract with their employer that was applicable to only the members of the union.

The NLRA established an election system under Section 9(a) for determining which union would exclusively represent the entire group of workers if there were a conflict between multiple groups. Under this system, at least thirty percent of workers within a bargaining unit (a group of workers with similar community of interest) express support to hold a representation election, several weeks or months later an election is held to determine if the bargaining unit is represented by a union and which union would be the exclusive representative. The “members only” unions that were commonplace during the early years of the modern American Labor movement faded away as unions turned toward an exclusive, election-based model for determining labor union representation and abandoned members only representation as a strategy. Though the NLRA still protected the rights of minority unions, their formation became less common in post-war industrial relations. With the emphasis on representation elections and majority unionism, employers gained an enormous advantage by campaigning against unions and defeating them in a certification election, effectively barring their employees from collective bargaining.

With the vast majority of Americans employed in the private sector, policymakers should care about the health of the labor relations system as a means to mitigate disputes and ensure the socially fair distribution of economic gains. Unions are the primary institutions that democratically represent workers in the workplace and the economy at-large. Their weakness in recent years has been a substantial contributing factor in widening income inequality, decreasing aggregate demand, and stagnating wages (Buchele and Christiansen 1993; Glyn 2007). Ensuring the civil right to collectively bargain is essential to reversing these negative labor market trends. An effective labor relations system is the keystone of an inclusive and productive economy and reforming our current system should be a top priority for policy makers.