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Hard (on) Labor

New report finds that aggressive, often illegal tactics by employers are partly to blame for the sharp decline in union membership

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fewer than 13 percent of workers in the U.S. today belong to a labor union, a statistic that anti-union forces will point to as evidence that unions are relics of the past, and no longer appeal to most Americans.

But a new report from Cornell University suggests another, darker reason for the steep decline in union membership in recent generations: the aggressive, often illegal tactics used by employers determined to keep their companies union-free.

“[T]he 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 … they do so with near impunity,” writes author Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell.

In her report “No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing,” Bronfenbrenner examined union drives at 1,004 companies between 1999 and 2003. In many cases, the report found, management relied on threats and intimidation to dissuade workers from voting in a union; in 57 percent of cases, they threatened to shut down the plant if a union was created. In 47 percent of cases, they threatened to cut wages or benefits. In 34 percent of cases, employees were fired. About two-thirds of workers were forced to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors; the same number were subjected to one-on-one meetings where bosses grilled them about their or their coworkers’ opinions about unions.

While these anti-union tactics are hardly new, employers are using them more frequently now than in the past, according to Bronfenbrenner, who’s conducted similar studies over the past 20 years. She also found that management is more likely to turn to threats than “carrots” (promises of raises or better schedules, for instance) to persuade workers to vote against a union.

Workers who turn to the National Labor Relations Board for relief very often don’t find it, according to the report; filing unfair labor charges against an employer “is a process fraught with delays and risks to the worker, with extremely limited penalties for the employer, even in the most extreme cases,” Bronfenbrenner writes.

“Our labor law system is broken,” she adds. “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.”

Labor activists are hailing the report as compelling evidence in support of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would, among other reforms, allow workers to form unions simply by collecting signed cards from a majority of employees. That would sidestep the typically protracted NLRB secret-ballot election process, which is usually attended by an anti-union campaign launched by management.

Representatives from business, meanwhile, dismiss Bronfenbrenner’s work as biased pro-union propaganda. “Kate’s long been allied with the union movement and has issued studies in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act the last few years. She is certainly not an objective source,” Randel K. Johnson, a vice president with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently told the New York Times.

Bronfenbrenner, in fact, makes no bones about her support of EFCA, which she writes would “streamline the burdensome and terrifying obstacle course that the organizing and first contract process has become, while also offering more substantive penalties for the most egregious employer violations.”

But, she continues, the necessary reforms would not end at EFCA. “We had a labor law on our books for the last 20 years that U.S. employers have violated with impunity,” she writes. While EFCA would be a significant step in the right direction, Congress, policy and citizens groups, and workers and employers alike will also need to keep the pressure on the government to make sure labor laws are followed.
“Our country cannot afford a system where the only unionized workplaces are where workers are tough, brave, and lucky enough to make it through the campaign,” Bronfenbrenner writes.

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