In February, teaching fellows in eight departments at Yale University voted in favor of union representation. Rather than bargain with the teaching fellows’ union, Yale has insisted upon first exhausting its appeals, apparently hoping that Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-named appointees to the National Labor Relations Board will come to its rescue. In the meantime, some of the teaching fellows have embarked upon a hunger strike, generating a great deal of publicity, and inflaming tensions on campus as right-wing student groups have taken to taunting the hunger strikers.
At the same time that this controversy has been brewing at Yale, employer trade associations have been aggressively lobbying Congress to do something to overturn the NLRB’s decision in Browning-Ferris Industries, which makes it easier for workers to bargain with lead firms that exercise power over their terms and conditions of employment.
When I think about the events at Yale and the employer community’s reaction to Browning-Ferris, I find it reassuring that collective bargaining still seems to strike so much fear into the hearts of employers. And yet, workers don’t seem to realize this. Instead, the share of the economic pie that workers get continues to shrink, while the percentage of workers in unions is also declining. And, instead of joining together with their co-workers to bargain collectively, some workers have turned to a billionaire demagogue who tells them they should let him be their voice since he alone can solve their problems.
In reality, collective bargaining probably shouldn’t be that scary for employers. In fact, the process of collective bargaining actually provides some real benefits for employers: sitting down to bargain about workplace rules tends to expose special favors and rationalize policies; it also provides employers with a truer gauge of workers’ concerns than a suggestion box. On the other hand, it’s true that when workers join together to bargain, they are generally able to obtain higher wages and benefits. But even this may not be such a zero-sum trade-off since employers can gain from the lower turnover and increased employee satisfaction that inevitably goes along with better pay and benefits.
The irony is that right now collective bargaining is such a foreign concept to both workers and bosses that the same employers who fear their employees’ collective power can simultaneously scare workers into thinking that collective bargaining will leave them worse off. Perhaps if workers noticed how much fear they can instill in their employer when they band together they would start organizing in droves, and then both workers and employers might realize that collective bargaining is not that scary after all.