Yes, the National Labor Relations Act says workers have
the right to organize and join unions. Yet a new study shows that growing
numbers of them risk being fired for attempting to unionize.
In more than one-fourth of the union organizing campaigns
since 2000 among workers covered by the law, some of the workers were illegally
fired for being pro-union, according to the study by economists John Schmitt
and Ben Zipperer of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The latest
yearly figures, for 2007, show that about 30 percent of the campaigns involved
The number of workers fired was relatively small - no
more than 1,500 overall per year. But that included an estimated 20 percent of
the activists and organizers in particular campaigns. What's more, the threat
of being fired undoubtedly kept many workers who otherwise would have supported
unionization from doing so.
Not counted, either, were the unknown number of workers
who were fired but didn't raise complaints because of the lengthy legal process
involved and the meager settlement they could expect - at best, reinstatement
and back pay minus whatever they might earn at other jobs while awaiting a
Left out of the study entirely were public employees and
railroad and agricultural workers, who are not covered by the Labor Relations
Act. But it's certain that at least some of them also face the prospect of
The reinstatement and back-pay penalties facing employers
are so slight, as the study notes, that firing is a cost-effective way to block
Employers have been given "a powerful anti-union
strategy: fire one or more prominent pro-union employees - typically workers
involved in organizing the union - with the hope of disrupting the internal
workings of the organizing campaign, while intimidating the rest of the
potential bargaining unit" in advance of the government-supervised
elections in which workers vote on whether to unionize.
That's been an important part of "a systematic attack on unions,
especially on union efforts to organize new workers," that employers have
been waging for more than two decades "with substantial legal support and
It's no wonder the proportion of workers belonging to
unions has been dropping steadily, despite the Labor Relation Act's stated
purpose of encouraging unionization.
Once, as many as one of every three workers was a union member. That's
still true of public employees. But only about one of every 13 workers in private
employment is a member.
As the study makes clear, "an important part of the
decline in private sector unionization rates ... is that aggressive - even
illegal - employer behavior has undermined the ability of workers to form
There's a remedy for that - the Employee Free Choice Act.
It's been before Congress for several years, only to be blocked by Republicans.
But it's been gaining important new support from organized labor's Democratic
allies, including President Obama and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
The proposed law would impose fines of up to $20,000 per
violation on employers who illegally fire union supporters or otherwise violate
workers' union rights.
The key provision would automatically grant union
recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer's
workers, rather than holding an election, as is now done in most cases. The
choice of having an election is now left to employers, who choose that method
because of the opportunity an election campaign gives them to pressure workers
to oppose unionization.
Employers force workers to attend meetings at which they
attack unions, often asserting that unionization will lead to pay cuts and
layoffs or even force them out of business. Similar messages are delivered to
workers one-on-one by supervisors, often along with threats of firing or
demotion or other disciplinary action. The study also found that some employers
give bribes or special favors to union opponents and aid to workers' anti-union
Allowing unionization to be granted on the showing of
membership cards, and thus spare workers from employer intimidation, would not
deny workers the democratic right to vote on unionization, as the Free Choice
Act's employer opponents and Republican allies falsely claim. If workers asked
for an election, there'd be an election. Under current law, only employers can
call for elections.
Although chances for passage of the act look good, the
opposition is formidable. It includes many powerful corporate employers, the
entire Republican establishment, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and such other
stalwarts of the anti-union right as the Heritage Foundation and National Right
to Work Committee.
Both the union supporters and the anti-union opponents
have launched major nationwide campaigns. The outcome of their battle could
have the most important impact on American workers since the passage in 1935 of
the National Relations Act with its now often unfulfilled promises of basic
rights for workers -- among them the right to seek unionization without the
risk of losing their jobs.
Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister