Labor Day: 3 reasons unions should be celebrating this year

Striking McDonald's worker Abran Escarzaga, 31, protests outside McDonald's in Los Angeles
Striking McDonald's worker Abran Escarzaga, 31, protests outside McDonald's in Los Angeles, California, December 5, 2013. Organizers say fast food workers will strike in 100 U.S. cities, and there will be protests in 100 more, to fight for $15 an hour wages and the right to form a union. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS CIVIL UNREST FOOD) - RTX1656M
Photograph by Lucy Nicholson — Reuters

Considering union membership rates alone, the labor movement has little to celebrate on Labor Day—a holiday that began as a way to honor union workers and commemorate their alliance—or on any day, for that matter.

Unionization has been on a steady decline over the past three decades. During that time, industries where unions held significant sway—manufacturing, for instance—diminished in size, states enacted laws that limit unions’ power, and developments in labor law have made it more difficult for workers to organize if their employers are against it. The total number of unionized workers has dropped by 3.1 million from 1983—the earliest year with comparable data—to 14.6 million last year. That’s up from a low of 14.3 million in 2012, but the percentage of all workers who are union members continues to slip.

But thanks to a few developments in recent months, unions have reason to be a bit more festive on Labor Day this year. Here’s why:

1 Digital newsrooms want unions

On Thursday, digital journalists at Al Jazeera America announced that a majority of its newsroom had petitioned to join the NewsGuild of New York, which is part of the Communication Workers of America union. That news comes on the heels of similar announcements from other online news operations. In August, writers at Vice Media voted to join the Writers’ Guild of America following the lead of journalists at Gawker and Salon, who also voted to unionize in June and July, respectively. The trend sparks hope that unions may have a role in workplaces that aren't characterized by assembly lines and machinery but by all things digital instead.

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2 Organizing fast-food workers just got easier

The Fight for $15—a movement started by fast-food workers nearly three years ago—has called for hourly pay of at least $15 and a union. In some parts of the country, they've succeeded in securing that first demand and the second became much more of a reality last month, thanks to a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, a five-member panel responsible for protecting workers' right to organize.

In a 3-2 decision, the NLRB essentially redefined the employer-employee relationship, which had gone unchanged since the 1980s. It ruled that if a corporation enlists a contractor company to hire staff for one of its facilities, the parent corporation is considered a joint employer of those workers even if it doesn't actively supervise them. Unions representing those employees will be able to bargain with the parent corporation in addition to the contractor. So, in other words, workers at a McDonald's franchise can now negotiate with the franchise owner and McDonald's itself.

The NLRB's decision provides unions inroads to industries that had previously been hard to crack, most notably fast food, where the franchise model dominates. In the past, corporations have terminated a franchise or contractor when its workers get close to forming a union. The NLRB's ruling takes that option off the table.

3 Union elections are way faster

In April, a federal rule went into effect that speeds up the union election process. The new rule means employees can organize in less than two weeks, versus the previous average of 38 days.

The change infuriated corporations and pro-business Republicans who said that the "ambush" elections give employers little time to respond. The Chamber of Commerce even argued that it limits employers' free speech.

Labor leaders and Democrats, meanwhile, praised the rule. They said that it will cut down on misconduct by employers that want to dissuade workers from supporting a union push.

In the six weeks following the implementation of the rule change, the NLRB said that it had seen a 32% spike in election petitions.

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