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K-State Today

March 21, 2011

Psychology professor says unions battling at the bargaining table enhances American workplace

By Julie Fosberg

Challenges to labor organizations are energizing workers to fight for unions, according to a Kansas State University researcher.

All workers have benefited from labor organizations, which have transformed the American workplace, said Clive Fullagar, a psychology professor who has researched the psychological aspects of unions and the collective bargaining process in the United States and South Africa. He has studied why workers join and leave unions and attitudes toward organized labor, strike behavior, work-related stress and leadership behavior in unions.

"Even if a union is not present in the workplace, the very threat of a union is a motivating factor to get management to listen to the needs of workers," he said. "The mere presence of unions forces nonunionized companies to introduce competitive benefits so they can attract workers from the same labor pool."

Fewer checks and balances will hold employers accountable if labor unions like those under fire across the country in states like Wisconsin are weakened, Fullagar said.

"All benefits that we take for granted in the workplace, like vacation and sick leave, have been negotiated, at one time or another, by a labor union," he said. "They haven’t come about because of a benevolent and altruistic management, but because labor organizations have fought for them."

American workers typically join unions for job security, Fullagar said.

"The whole collective bargaining process is based upon the premise that there's always going to be conflict between workers and management when it comes to important issues like wages," he said. "Workers want some sort of representation to voice their needs and perspective, which are often counter to management's position."

Some workers no longer think union dues are worthwhile, Fullagar said. Labor unions represented 6.9 percent of employees in companies in 2010, down from 7.2 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In the public sector, however, 39 percent of state and local workers are members of unions.

"Those who leave labor organizations have a sense that they are no longer being instrumental to achieving what we often take for granted in a job," Fullagar said. "They believe labor organizations to a certain extent have fulfilled their role because they're not necessary to fight for many of the issues unions have traditionally battled for."

However, recent challenges to unions have reignited workers to stand up for labor organizations, he said.

"People are becoming mobilized and are thinking more about what unions do," Fullagar said. "American unions are reaching the tipping point, and workers are finding out what is worth fighting for, which sometimes happens on the brink of losing something you take for granted."

Interest in labor organizations has fallen in recent memory because of negative depictions in the news media, he said. Unions are often in the public eye in times of conflict.

"The public has believed that unions are defunct because of corruption, but that's not typical of labor organizations at all," he said. "After looking at cases by the National Labor Relations Board, I found the number of cases brought against unions for corruption were minuscule in comparison to the number of cases brought against corporate America for disenfranchising workers."

Workers in South Africa joined unions not for safety, but for basic human rights, said Fullagar, who was once a professor at the University of Witwatersrand.

"In many countries, labor unions are the only institutions that look out for the basic human rights of workers and provide many with the only political voice with which to be heard," he said.