Start with the fact that only about one in 10 non-union workers say they would know how to form a union if they wanted to, according
to polling I have conducted together with researchers at MIT. That's understandable because the process is long, complicated and risky for rank-and-file workers. Workers often endure
threats, mandatory anti-union meetings, surveillance and even physical intimidation from their employers in the protracted process necessary to hold an election
for union representation.
Although employers are legally barred from disciplining or firing workers involved in the union organizing process, many employers do so anyway
because the penalties are so low. An employer that illegally fires a union organizer is liable
only for paying the worker's back pay—minus any income the worker has earned in the meantime. One recent report estimated
that employers are charged with violating federal law in over 40% of union elections. And if workers manage to win union elections against these long odds, they still have to reach a first contract. Many employers drag
the process on for years until workers lose steam.
Other workers, moreover, simply lack union rights altogether
: agricultural workers, domestic and caretaking workers, independent contractors, anyone with any supervisory duties and public sector workers in many states cannot collectively bargain with their employers.
On top of these barriers to forming a union is the fact that current labor law makes it difficult, if not outright impossible, for unions to provide the services that workers say are most important, like having a voice when it comes to management decisions or health and retirement coverage they can take with them between jobs. Together with researchers at MIT's Sloan School of Management, I have been conducting nationally representative surveys of American workers to understand
the forms of labor representation that workers would most value.
Our research found that workers highly valued traditional collective bargaining, as well as sectoral or regional bargaining that would allow labor organizations to set standards across an industry or state. Workers also prized labor organizations that could offer extra unemployment benefits, health insurance, retirement coverage, job training and skills development. And workers liked the idea of giving labor organizations more input into how they do their day-to-day jobs as well as weighing in on decisions made at the firm-wide level about business operations.