In his column “Sorry, class warriors, but unions aren’t coming back” (Ideas, June 11), Jeff Jacoby asserts that “unions didn’t decline because laws are stacked against them or because employers have too much power.” I suppose who has “too much power” depends on the perspective and personal interests of the beholder, but any suggestion that employers do not have enormously greater power over individual employees in the employment relationship is simply false.
The default rule in the United States is employment at will, where an employee may be discharged at any time for any reason. Most employees may be fired and lose their income whenever the employer chooses. It is illegal to fire employees for certain specific reasons, including union activity. But because of the default rule, the employee’s burden to prove that they were fired for a specific, unlawful reason substantially weakens the practical impact of this protection.
Many employers have not hesitated to use their power to fire to stifle unionization. In a January 2007 study, the Center for Economic Policy and Research concluded that almost one in five “union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign.” This tactic is illegal, but it works because of the enormous power imbalance. So the question for Jacoby is, if the decline of unions isn’t about power and is simply because employees don’t want the kind of protections and benefits he enjoys as a union member, then why do any employers even bother to “persuade” employees by firing union activists?
The writer is a lawyer representing employees and unions.