Despite a long history as the only institution standing between working class Americans and industrialists' bootheels, unions have seen their influence waning for decades. Their new plan: collective bargaining for union members and non-union-members alike.

Collective bargaining for employees... without a union. What exactly would that mean? Good question. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the AFL-CIO is going to advocate a new law that would require employers to bargain with their workers over wages even if their workers were not unionized. They want to expand on and strengthen the National Labor Relations Act, which is more than 75 years old. From the WSJ:

Existing law doesn't require workers to be represented by a union to collectively bargain — at least not in the traditional sense of what a union is. Employees have the right to collectively bargain if they can demonstrate that they're part of a "labor organization" that represents a majority of the workers, labor lawyers say. The term "labor organization" is broader than a union, including any organization, agency, committee or plan, in which employees participate for the purpose of dealing with employers about labor disputes, wages, work schedules or other working conditions.

It isn't clear if organized labor would seek to legally require employers to bargain without a labor organization in place. Under existing law, private-sector workers can take collective action on their own, such as approaching their employer to try to improve wages, benefits or other working conditions. Employers can't retaliate but aren't required to negotiate with the workers.

This law (which is not expected to pass any time soon) would seem to be quite a coup for workers. But I must admit I'm a little hazy on exactly what form it would take in a non-union workplace. Presumably some ad hoc workers committee would be empowered to bargain on behalf of everyone? Why not just... keep those committees in place, and call them "unions?" This would seem to be a rather selfless gesture by unions—an allowance that even as their membership plummets, the need for the benefits they once provided remains.

Any labor law experts please feel free to weigh in on this in the discussion section below.

[Photo: AP]