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
"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
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
The study clearly documented that employers'
"intense and aggressive" use of such illegal tactics to block
workers' freedom to form
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
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
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
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