Big Labor could be coming soon to a department store near you.
Thanks to a recent ruling by President Barack Obama’s union-friendly National Labor Relations Board, labor bosses will be able to organize small groups of employees within a single workplace into “micro-unions” – smaller collective bargaining units made up only of workers from a certain department, shift or other sub-unit of the business.
This fractured approach to unionization will only make things difficult for workers, employers and customers, but it will make life easier for the union bosses themselves. And it would appear that’s exactly what the Obama NLRB had in mind.
The board voted 3-1 in favor of allowing 41 fragrance and cosmetics workers at a Macy’s store in Saugus, Massachusetts to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. As might be expected, the members voted totally along partisan lines. By voting based on political calculations, rather than in the best interest of American workers, the board has given Big Labor a hand-up toward establishing footholds in more and more workplaces.
In the Macy’s decision, the NLRB invoked its still-controversial ruling from the 2011 Specialty Healthcare case. That case saw the board rule that certain employees at a long-term care home – specifically the nursing assistants – could organize themselves to join a micro-union apart from the rest of the staff. Applying Specialty Healthcare to Macy’s, however, could have even further-reaching implications by allowing the micro-unionization into other industries, including retail.
A major department store like the Macy’s in question would be one of the very worst places for micro-unions to take root.
The Saugus Macy’s has 150 employees spread out over two stories. In fact, the employees hoping to join the micro-union are themselves located on two different floors – cosmetics and women’s fragrance workers on the first, and men’s fragrance workers on the second. Having pockets of unionized employees spread throughout the store would only cause friction between workers, and would throw up unnecessary barriers to cross-training and collaboration between workers in union and non-union departments.
If employees are unionized on the basis of department or shift, what might happen if different micro-unions were backed by different national labor groups? A single store could wind up with outposts of several unions – the UFCW, the Service Employees International Union, the United Automobile Workers – all under its roof. Workers would find themselves caught between the various unions and employers would be inundated with differing collective bargaining agreements.
Imagine the employers’ choice if each union in their store demanded agreements on their own terms: if they accept the differing agreements, they risk treating certain employees differently by virtue of the section in which they work; and if they hold out for equitable treatment of all employees storewide, they face a strike.
And what might that look like? Would certain departments shut down while the others carried on business as usual? Would a micro-union’s picket line target only the striking department or the entire store? And what would the administrative costs look like? Would struggling businesses even be able to afford them?
We’ve seen how well this worked in practice at Hostess, the now defunct maker of Twinkies. Hostess was organized by a plethora of different unions, with different work rules, health plans, pension plans and wage scales. Ultimately one union held out on contract terms, forcing the company into bankruptcy. So this concern isn't some hypothetical; it’s all too real.
Of course, a group significantly affected by this would be the customers. American consumers may find themselves shopping at major department stores faced with employees hemmed in by rigid union regulations. A worker in a UFCW-affiliated cosmetics department might be afraid to help a customer lost in the non-union shoe department because they might get in trouble with the union boss.
The NLRB, packed with union-friendly members appointed by a labor-friendly and financially-supported president – after some of his previous appointees were deemed unconstitutional – has handed Big Labor a major victory on a silver Macy’s platter. The board is advancing the work it began in Specialty Healthcare, allowing member - and dues-starved union bosses the chance to break into more workplaces by way of micro-unions.
If segmented American workplaces become the norm, the consequences for workers, employers and customers could be irreversible.
Fred Wszolek is a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute (WFI).
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