Labor - And A Whole Lot More

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A new study by one of the country's most highly regarded labor experts makes clear beyond doubt that illegal employer actions and lax government oversight have denied great and growing numbers of workers the legal right of unionization.

That's had much to with the percentage of workers belonging to unions dropping to little more than 12 percent from a level almost double that three decades ago, says Kate Bronfenbrenner. She's director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

"Our labor law system is broken," Bronfenbrenner concluded. "Polling consistently shows that a majority of workers believe they would be better off if they had a union in their workplace, but they also feel that they would be taking a great risk if they were to try to organize."  As a result, she says, "the overwhelming majority of workers who want unions don't have them."

The workers, Bronfenbrenner adds, "know intuitively what our data show -- that the overwhelming majority of U.S. employers are willing to use a broad arsenal of legal and illegal tactics to interfere with the rights of workers to organize, and that they do so with near impunity."

As her study notes, the system is "operating in direct violation of the law -- the law  that says  employers must allow employees to vote freely, without threats of retaliation or any other consequences, on whether they want a union to bargain with the employers to set their working conditions.

The study covered a random sample of 1,004 union organizing drives over a recent four-year period. In more than half the drives, employers threatened to close all or part of their facilities or lay-off workers if they voted to unionize. In nearly half the drives, employers threatened to reduce pay and benefits.

In most of the drives, employees were required to attend meetings where employers raised those and other threats as they argued, unchallenged, against a vote for unionization. Employers also met with workers one-on-one to demand that they divulge how they and others were going to vote.

Some spied on union organizers as they made their rounds or simply refused them access to their employees. Some had anti-union employees infiltrate union organizing committees, or they set up anti-union committees of their own. Some fired or suspended union supporters, or imposed onerous assignments on them. Some employers took the opposite approach and offered supporters cash bribes, promotions or other special favors to vote against unionization.

The study clearly documented that employers' "intense and aggressive" use of such illegal tactics to block workers'  freedom to form unions has been steadily increasing, to the point that it's become standard practice.

Even workers who manage to win the right to negotiate a union contract often face continued employer opposition. Employers' stalling tactics keep winners waiting for as long as five years before agreeing to contracts.  Most others have been forced to wait at least a year.

It's obvious that the federal government has done little to protect workers from the many employers who openly violate the 74-year-old National Labor Relations Act, a key New Deal law that was enacted as a way to encourage the growth of unionization and the growth of a middle class that would follow, as it did.

Employers face minimal penalties for violating the law, even for penalizing workers who complain to government officials about violations. Usually, offending employers are ordered to do no more than allow workers a second vote and to post notices spelling out the workers' legal rights.

At most, offending employers have to make back-pay settlements to illegally fired union supporters. The payments commonly amount to no more than a few thousand dollars per worker and sometimes are withheld for two years or more. The study notes, too, that there are no punitive damages or extra penalties for repeat offenders.

Kate Bronfenbrenner's study will undoubtedly play an important role in the heated political debate over the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to freely exercise their union rights.

Instead of holding elections that employers can, and do, manipulate to illegally escape unionization, employers could be required to bargain with a union on the showing of membership cards in that union by a majority of their employees.

Consider that very few of the illegal tactics cited in the study were used against public employees -- most of whom were granted union recognition by a simple show of union cards.

In addition to allowing card-check recognition, the Free Choice Act calls for fines of $20,000 for willful and repeat violations and requires employers to reach contract agreements with unions within  90 days after they are legally recognized as their employees' representative or  else have the terms dictated by a government arbitrator.

Bronfenbrenner thinks the Free Choice Act is the most important of the reforms necessary to correct the serious harm shown by her study. She says it would be a start -- but only a start -- toward "giving workers back their rights and protections."

Thanks to her study, even those who oppose the proposed law now have the strongest evidence yet of the crucial need to thoroughly revamp the imperfect laws that govern our working lives.

Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister