Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Longshoremen Strike Shows the Danger of Minority Unions

Eight days and nearly eight billion lost dollars later, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) clerks’ strike at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach finally ended earlier this month. The strike made one thing painfully obvious: minority unions have the potential to be disastrous to American industry.

This particular strike had very modest beginnings. The initial strikers numbered only 600 members—port clerks who feared that their jobs would be outsourced or, more likely, replaced by new technology. After working for two-and-a-half years without a contract, the clerks walked off the job and onto the picket lines. Things got worse when the remaining 10,000 ILWU members launched a solidarity strike, shutting down 10 of the 14 terminals.

Consider what this small number of striking workers was able to accomplish. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach directly support a combined 48,000 port-affiliated jobs. The nature of the port industry, however, means that the number of jobs they indirectly support runs to over 1.2 million jobs in California and 5 million jobs nationwide. Additionally, the value of the cargo passing through both ports runs to an estimated $428 billion each year.

A mere 600 striking workers brought this titanic enterprise to a grinding halt. The sheer amount of damage done by such a small number of people boggles the mind.

It’s also a clear example of what awaits American business now that the NLRB has opened the door for minority unions.

The legal roots of the minority union—alternatively called “micro unions”—go back a 2011 NLRB case. In Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, the NLRB ruled that a small group of nurses could unionize even though they constituted a minority in workplace. The decision noted that, even though the larger workplace formed the “appropriate bargaining unit,” it did not mean that the smaller section constituted an “inappropriate” one.

Prior to this ruling, union organizers had to approach all of the workers that shared the same workplace interests and performed roughly similar work—the “appropriate bargaining unit.” But with minority unions, organizers only have to approach a cross-section of the full group. The result?  Unions can incrementally unionize businesses, even if a majority of workers want a union-free shop.

The following May, another NLRB case extended the logic of Specialty Healthcare even further. In the Bergdorf Goodman case, the NLRB ruled that 42 employees in a 372-person shoe store could unionize. The sole difference between the 42 employees and their 330 coworkers was that they only sold women’s shoes.

The threat to business is obvious. As minority unions begin to proliferate, businesses will have to contend with dozens or even hundreds of different unions—and union contracts—in their stores. A single unit of employees—those that work on a loading dock, for instance—can thus shut down an entire store.

With the addition of more HR and legal fees, business operating costs are sure to rise, including at companies already struggling with their bottom line. Meanwhile, at companies where the majority of workers don’t want to unionize, the tried-and-true practice of the democratic majority won’t be enough to keep union organizers at bay.

The port strike hints at the sort of havoc minority unions can wreak. Though not a minority union themselves, the ILWU clerks’ actions are a testament to what a slim minority of workers can achieve with a strike. Minority unions will only make this kind of seismic disruption more commonplace—and more costly.

Categories: AFL-CIOCenter for Union FactsNLRB