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Labor Law: Not Dead Yet


Setting the Scene

Lost in the constant turmoil of President Trump’s predilection for self-inflicted wounds is the interesting fact that labor law—the demise of which has been announced by numerous observers—is experiencing something of a revival. Not quite yet of Lazarus proportions, but interesting for aspiring legal job seekers nonetheless.

You cannot blame the gravediggers for their perhaps premature proclamation. After all, private sector unions now account for a miniscule 7 percent of the U.S. work force and right-to-work laws have now been enacted by a majority of states, including some recent surprising ones in the industrial Midwest. However, they ignore the fact that public employee unions, in sharp contrast, still comprise a robust 38 percent of the government work force.

The 2010 election put Republican governors in office in the union-heavy (a very relative term) Midwest. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and his ideological clones in other states have done more for the American labor movement than anyone since Samuel Gompers and John L. Lewis. What was dead as a doornail has been energized, raised from the dead to fight once more for collective bargaining and other rights, and to become deeply involved in national and state elections.

First it was Governor Walker, followed quickly by Governors John Kasich in Ohio and Mike Pence in Indiana, who went after public employee unions in a big way. Ironically, one of the results of their anti-union activities has been that labor law and labor relations jobs on attorney job websites have steadily increased, with law firm labor and employment practices leading the way.

In many states, collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations have, for years, taken the form of unions holding a gun to the heads of management. The result has been, for example, gilt-edge contracts that some unions have that permit their members to featherbed their working hours during their last few years of employment in order to take home annual six-figure pension checks. State and municipal governments can no longer afford to operate in this way.

For example, while New York State bans public employee union strikes, it must contend with the “Triborough Doctrine,” under which existing CBAs cannot expire during negotiations for a new labor contract. Consequently, there is no union incentive to negotiate a new CBA if its members would likely be better off under the old one. Consequently, negotiations can continue ad infinitum.

Signs of Growing Interest

While public sector unions have been energized by attempts to squelch them, there are also signs of life in private sector organizing. Emerging industries are now at the point where nascent efforts to organize their workers are occurring all over the country.

Digital media industries are seeing a lot of this kind of activity. Other new industries are also being targeted, chief among them the renewable energy sector, especially rapidly expanding wind and solar.

Boosting Your Labor Law Credentials

Credentials mean something when competing for a labor law job. It helps, of course, to have taken labor law courses in law school and/or to have a related undergraduate or graduate degree. Nevertheless, there are short-term, reasonably priced educational programs that you can take to enhance your competitive advantage, such as:

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