Wrestling with some dismal data on the waning strength of America’s organized labor, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis tried to make the best of it.  She said in her January 21st press release that the data showed the need for workers to unionize.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on January 21 that the unionization rate of employed wage and salary workers dropped noticeably last year.  For 2010, the agency announced, the rate nationwide fell to 11.9 percent overall, from 12.3 percent in 2009.  In the private sector, the news was no better.  The rate there dropped to 6.9 percent, from 7.2 the year before.  There are 16.9 million workers in jobs covered by collective bargaining agreements, BLS reported, but 1.6 million of them indicated no union membership.  Half of the 14.7 million union members lived in just six states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey.  The highest unionization rates were in education, training and library occupations.  It is hard to imagine that half a century ago unions represented a third or more of America’s workforce.

But citing weekly wage differentials between union workers and non-union workers, the Administration’s chief (organized) labor advocate said that union jobs, with better benefits and pay, were central to restoring the middle class.  Thus, the Secretary said, protecting the right to organize and bargain collectively was especially important to our economic recovery.

We wouldn’t count on a resurgence of union representation to fuel the engine of America’s recovery and job growth.   If unions were so attractive, why are the BLS numbers so bleak?  The recession took its toll on union jobs, as well as others.  Unions could not prevent sizable layoffs in their members’ ranks and have not led the way back from high unemployment.  They stand little chance of doing so, we think.

Despite the Secretary’s opinion, and the tinkering of a pro-union National Labor Relations Board trying to tilt the legal playing field in organized labor’s favor, America’s workers generally have shown little interest in casting their lot with the “fraternally yours” crowd.  Perhaps a better educated, mobile, electronically oriented, and diverse workforce no longer sees as much value in traditional union representation — at least not enough to offset the cost in dollars and individual opportunity.  And perhaps the Secretary’s generalizations on union workers’ compensation are too much influenced by the large contingent of public-sector union workers in the total mix and the shrinking clusters of union-dominated private-sector jobs.  Employee free choice on union representation must be defended.  Saddling America’s workers with unions they do not want to fulfill the Administration’s vision for economic reengineering, however, is ill-conceived.

Jobs with good wages and benefits are worth achieving.  No one denies it.  But unless these jobs are competitive, productive, and efficiently performed, and unless they reward individual achievement, they cannot last in today’s global economy.  The President may have come to that realization as he seeks to reassure small business and corporate executives that he intends to rein in government regulation in order to create a climate conducive to growth and job creation.  Unions have yet to show America’s workers they understand that need, too.

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Photo of Philip B. Rosen Philip B. Rosen

Philip B. Rosen is a Principal in the New York City office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and a member of the Firm’s Management Committee. Mr. Rosen also leads the firm’s Labor Practice Group. He joined the Firm in 1979 and served as Managing…

Philip B. Rosen is a Principal in the New York City office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and a member of the Firm’s Management Committee. Mr. Rosen also leads the firm’s Labor Practice Group. He joined the Firm in 1979 and served as Managing Partner of the New York City office from 1989 to 2009.

Mr. Rosen lectures extensively, conducts management training, and advises clients with respect to legislative and regulatory initiatives, corporate strategies, business ethics, social media, reorganizations and reductions-in-force, purchase/sale transactions, sexual harassment and other workplace conduct rules, compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, wrongful discharge and other workplace litigation, corporate campaigns and union organizing matters, collective bargaining, arbitration and National Labor Relations Board proceedings. He has been quoted by the press on many labor matters, including the National Labor Relations Board’s recent initiatives on protected concerted activity and the proposed Notice Posting requirements.

Photo of Richard I. Greenberg Richard I. Greenberg

Richard Greenberg, a Principal in New York City office of Jackson Lewis P.C., is admitted to the bar of the State of New York and the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. Mr. Greenberg graduated from Cornell University’s…

Richard Greenberg, a Principal in New York City office of Jackson Lewis P.C., is admitted to the bar of the State of New York and the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. Mr. Greenberg graduated from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in 1992 and earned a Juris Doctor degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1995.

He advises both unionized and union-free clients on a full-range of labor and employee relations matters. With respect to traditional labor matters, Mr. Greenberg represents clients in collective bargaining negotiations, labor disputes, grievances and arbitrations, proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board, and in state and federal court. Mr. Greenberg also advises clients on the legal aspects of remaining union-free. With respect to employee relations matters, Mr. Greenberg has extensive experience assisting clients in numerous industries with the development and maintenance of personnel policies and personnel infrastructures. In this regard, Mr. Greenberg often works on these issues with clients as business needs and culture change as a result of business transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions.

Mr. Greenberg regularly advises clients on compliance with the myriad of federal and state employment laws, including the FMLA, FLSA, ADA, ADEA and WARN, as well as new legal developments impacting labor and employment policies and practices.