What Can 'Brown' Do for Big Labor?

With union membership steadily declining since the late 1960s, organized labor today represents only about 12 percent of the American workforce. Unions lost 326,000 members in the last year alone. That's why they are pressing congressional Democrats...


With union membership steadily declining since the late 1960s, organized labor today represents only about 12 percent of the American workforce. Unions lost 326,000 members in the last year alone. That's why they are pressing congressional Democrats -- who owe their majority status in part to campaign support from labor -- for legislation to help breathe life into their movement.

So far, the push has yielded limited success. Unions helped lead the fight to raise the minimum wage and, on a few bills, Democrats have inserted language favorable to labor, such as requirements for the union wage rate on certain construction projects. But unions suffered a high-profile defeat when the Senate declined to take up a bill that would make it easier to organize workplaces.

One legislative battle is coming, though, that may give labor's cause a boost. This fight -- billed as a clash of the package-delivery titans -- is all the more interesting because the unions have an unlikely corporate ally. United Parcel Service Inc. has joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the AFL-CIO to push for changes in federal law that would help them make inroads with the workers at rival FedEx Corp.

UPS, the employer of 230,000 Teamsters, has been a union shop for eight decades. FedEx has successfully resisted organized labor since it was founded more than 30 years ago, and few of its workers are unionized. Now, as the two delivery companies compete for market share, the unions and UPS alike want FedEx to pay its express-mail handlers union-scale wages and benefits.

This unusual alliance is lobbying to use a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to change a law that has kept the FedEx overnight-package division out from under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the 1935 law that covers most collective bargaining activities.

That division of the company, FedA-Ex Express, currently falls under the Railway Labor Act, an even older law that applies to companies deemed to be engaged in critical interstate transportation and requires employees to organize nationwide if they want to form a union. The Teamsters say they would be able to make more inroads at FedEx if they were able to hold union elections at individual job sites, as is permitted under the NLRA.

The effort may seem of little consequence when compared with top priorities on labor's national agenda, especially the sweeping bill now stalled in the Senate that would allow workers to form unions by signing cards instead of voting in secret-ballot elections. But experts say incremental changes making it easier to organize small segments of the workforce represent unions' best hope, unless Democrats increase their majorities in Congress and win the White House next year.

"It's not at all guaranteed that they'll get [the organizing card bill] passed in the next two, four or six years," said Richard Hurd, director of the labor studies program at Cornell University. "These smaller political actions both at the federal and state level are essential and have more potential for payoff now."

The FedEx-UPS dispute has been brewing for years. Memphis-based FedEx started operating in 1973 as an air freight service and is subject to the Railway Labor Act (RLA) because that law has applied to airlines since 1936. UPS, which turned 100 this year and is headquartered in Atlanta, employed messengers who delivered packages by bicycle and on foot before launching its fleet of trucks, and it has always been subject to the NLRA.

Over the decades, the two companies have become very similar. UPS has expanded into the overnight delivery business, while FedEx now has FedEx Ground, a separate division that handles road shipments. Both have storefront mailing centers. UPS argues that the two companies are essentially in the same business and should be treated the same under federal law.

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