Labor Day has come and gone once again, summer vacations are a distant memory, and it is time to celebrate the social and economic achievements of American workers. Labor Day was established in 1894 as a national holiday in the wake of the serious and violent disputes and the political unrest which followed them. It marked the rise of organized labor, changing the laws which govern the rights of America’s workers and their working conditions. It also set the 40-hour work week as a benchmark for permanent employment in America.
A recent Gallup poll has 59% of Americans supporting the presence of unions in the workforce. The approval may not be as high as it used to be in mid-20th century – when it stood at 75% – but it is higher than it was in 2009 at 48%. Currently, only 8% of all Americans are a part of a labor union and it is to be seen whether this number will go up or down over the next several years. Has anything really changed? One area of significant difference is the definition of “worker” protected under a collective bargaining agreement.
This summer, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has taken on the challenge of updating their standards and guidance based on a new notion of the composition of the American workforce. In July, the NLRB offered guidance on the definition of an employee, blurring the lines between employees and freelancers. A week ago, the NLRB ruled on a suit brought by the Teamsters Union in which a new definition was established for “joint employment”. This new standard truly opens the door for agency-supplied workers to be full participants in collective bargaining agreements. The NLRB clearly stated that the ruling was driven by its attempt to grapple with the larger question of who counts as an employee in an economy that is increasingly reliant on temporary employees.
The highly controversial decision, based on a 3-2 decision, was split along party lines and is reflective of overall attitudes toward unions. More Democrats (79%) favor unions than Republicans (18%). Supporters view the ruling as bringing equity to temporary workers by closing a loophole that allows companies to shirt their duties as employers. Detractors argue that it will drive up operating expenses for companies, reducing the use of freelancers and contingent workers, and making it harder for self-employed individuals to find work.
This does not mark the first time that temporary workers have sought protection through unions and collective bargaining. Last year, a group of 33 agency contractors on long-term assignment to Microsoft organized a union, the Temporary Workers of America, and began bargaining with their staffing agency employer, Lionbridge, for benefits. The formation of the union was authorized by a National Labor Relations Board vote last fall. The workers were seeking the health, vacation, and sick time benefits offered to regular Microsoft employees. This group of contingent workers is believed to be the first to form its own union. Since the creation of the Temporary Workers of America, Microsoft has required that all staffing agencies with more than 50 employees to offer 15 paid days off each year.
In Silicon Valley, contract workers are also beginning to organize. Google and Facebook shuttle bus drivers are now members of the Teamsters union. The union is currently soliciting Uber and Lyft drivers. The New York-based Freelancers Union, with more than 200,000 members nationwide, offers benefits such as health care, information sharing and political advocacy.
While about 40 percent of all local government workers belong to unions, only 4 percent of those in computer and mathematical professions do, according to federal data, about as low a rate as that of food-prep workers and farmers. Overall, union membership is at its lowest rate in U.S. history. However, those in temporary positions are turning to unions to ensure protections and benefits taken for granted by “permanent” American workers.
It remains to be seen whether collective bargaining agreements will be able to provide the benefits and services sought by contingent workers and freelancers while simultaneously without destroying the attractiveness to businesses of the temporary workforce model. We welcome your thoughts, and ask you to forward this blog to temp workers and companies who can share their experiences – pros and cons – of unionizing.
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