Study Shows Employers' Anti-Union Behavior Intensifying

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For those who question the need for the Employee Free Choice Act, a new study by Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner provides a sobering and persuasive response. Her research shows that not only do employers engage in punitive campaigns of intimidation, but their tactics are getting worse.

Bronfenbrenner is director of labor education research at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing, she provides a comprehensive, independent analysis of employer behavior in union representation elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) between 1999 and 2003. The report also compares employer behavior data from the study's time period with previous studies conducted over the last 20 years.

Employers are more than twice as likely to use 10 or more tactics-including threats of and actual firings-in their campaigns to thwart workers' organizing efforts. Today's anti-union activities include an increased focus on more coercive and punitive tactics designed to intensely monitor and punish union activity.

According to Bronfenbrenner, in NLRB election campaigns, it is standard practice for workers to be subjected by corporations to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance and retaliation for union activity. From the 1999-2003 data:

  • 63 percent interrogate workers in one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union;
  • 54 percent threaten workers in such meetings;
  • 57 percent threaten to close the work site;
  • 47 percent threaten to cut wages and benefits; and
  • 34 percent fire workers.

Even when workers succeed in forming a union, 52 percent are still without a contract a year after they win the election, and 37 percent remain without a contract two years after the election.

Private sector campaigns differ markedly from public sector ones, where 37 percent of workers belong to unions. Survey data from the public sector describe an atmosphere in which workers may organize relatively free from the kind of coercion, intimidation and retaliation that so taints the election process in the private sector. Most of the states in the public sector sample have laws allowing workers to choose a union through the majority sign-up process.

According to the report, the failure of the current system to defend workers' rights in a timely manner multiplies the obstacles workers face when seeking union representation, adding further delays that favor employers over workers. Bronfenbrenner finds that employers appeal a high percentage of the cases, and in the most egregious cases, the employer can count on a final decision being delayed by three to five years.

Yet, of the few cases in the sample studied where a penalty was imposed, the heaviest penalty an employer had to pay was back pay, minus the worker's interim wages.

No Holds Barred is published by the American Rights at Work Education Fund and the Economic Policy Institute. The report summary and full report are available online. The New York Times' story on the report says it "is likely to be heavily cited, quoted, praised and denounced in the debate over whether Congress should enact legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize."

May 21, 2009