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Anti-union intimidation on the rise

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The battle over the Employee Free Choice Act continues in Congress and in PR campaigns across the county. The EFCA, seen as the most important power struggle between labor and business in a generation, was introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate on March 10th.  Over the past few weeks, corporate lobbies have stepped up their work against the bill, producing anti-EFCA PR campaigns that claim that the pro-worker bill would put an end to National Labor Board "secret ballot" elections and enable union leaders to intimidate and coerce workers into signing cards to join a union.

But labor rights' groups have been quick to challenge the "EFCA myths," underscoring that the bill does not put an end to secret-ballot elections but instead allows workers to choose between the NLRB elections or a process dubbed "card-check." Card-check allows a union to represent workers when the majority of employees sign a card expressing their desire to join the union.

Labor groups have also pointed out that the anti-union tactics of employers are at the heart of workplace intimidation and rights suppression. Many unions end up pursuing card-check campaigns simply because secret-ballot elections are easily manipulated by employers during the long pre-election period.

Studies by economists such as Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner indicate that employers routinely try to intimidate workers--and frequently violate the law--in the run-up to NLRB union elections. Bronfenbrenner's research found high levels of corporate interference and intimidation. In those weeks leading up to the election, employers often use the time to engage in coercive anti-union campaigning to influence workers not to vote for the union. During this period, workers face harassment, intimidation, and the risk of being fired simply for trying to exercise their right to organize.

According to Bronfenbrenner's research:

  • 9 in 10 employers facing a union campaign force employees to attend closed-door "captive audience" meetings to hear anti-union propaganda;
  • 80 percent train supervisors on how to attack unions and require them to deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee;
  • Half of employers threaten to shut down the plant if workers unionize (only 2 percent actually do);
  • 3 out of 4 hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns, "often based on mass psychology and distorting the law."

A study released this month by the Center for Economic Policy Research found similar rates of intimidation. In Dropping the Ax: Illegal Firings During Union Election Campaigns, CEPR found a steep rise in illegal firings of pro-union workers in the 2000s relative to the last half of the 1990s: 1 in 5 union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign. Since 2000, illegal firings have marred over 1 in 4 NLRB-sponsored union elections, reaching 30 percent of elections in 2007, the study finds.

According to the CEPR study:

...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 create unions at their work places. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) penalties associated with illegal firings are small: back pay for illegally fired workers minus any earnings that workers had after they were fired. Current law has given employers a powerful anti-union strategy: fire one or more prominent pro-union employees--typically workers most 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 NLRB-supervised election.

This is the type of harsh environment that suppresses unionization and any chance at actual free and fair elections, labor advocates argue. Polls find that nearly three in five American workers say they would vote to join a union if they could. But intimidation, firings and harassment often hamper the cause.

Even though workplace intimidation is one of the biggest barriers preventing workers from unionizing, labor rights activists point out that current laws are also stacked against workers. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, companies break U.S. labor laws with impunity and often factor in potential penalties as the cost of doing business. As HRW explains: "US labor law currently permits a wide range of employer conduct that interferes with worker organizing. Enforcement delays are endemic, regularly denying aggrieved workers their right to an 'effective remedy.' Sanctions for illegal conduct are too feeble to adequately discourage employer law breaking, breaching the international law requirement that penalties be 'sufficiently dissuasive' to deter violations."

Enter the EFCA

These sort of anti-union intimidation tactics have been able to force workers into voting "no" during times of elections. The CEPR study provides evidence that since about 1980, employers have engaged in a systematic attack on unions that has had an impact on rates of unionization. For the past couple of decades, union membership in the United States has rapidly decreased, leading to slipping workforce power and fewer benefits for employees. In 2008, union membership sat at just 12.4 percent, a far drop from the 20.1 percent of 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In its study of worker abuse in the United States, Human Rights Watch found that the EFCA would remedy many of the deficiencies in current labor law and "create a more level playing field" for U.S. workers. The bill would create stiffer penalties for union-busting campaigns and establish an arbitration process that requires businesses to negotiate with their employees.

smithfieldrally.jpgLabor rights' groups point to the 17-year battle to unionize the Smithfield Foods packing plant in Tar Heel, N.C. as a perfect example of why the EFCA is so necessary. In December 2008, by a vote of 2,041 to 1,879, workers at Smithfield Foods' massive hog plant voted to unionize the plant in what had become one of the most closely-watched labor battles in the country. But it was a long journey to get there.

Smithfield worked to keep the union out of the plant using fear and intimidation to keep workers in line. In this hostile climate, Tar Heel plant workers tried twice in the 1990s to organize, and Smithfield responded with illegal union-busting tactics to interfere with the vote -- including firings, worker surveillance, deportation threats, sexual harassment, intimidation and violence. A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch singled out Smithfield for creating a "climate of fear" among workers, including intimidation, harassment and even beatings of suspected activists. Smithfield was forced to pay $1.1 million in back pay plus interest to employees who had been fired for union activity after a federal judge ruled in the union's favor in 2006, finding Smithfield guilty of "intense and wide-spread coercion."

Labor advocates argue that the EFCA could make a difference in cases like Smithfield. As David Bacon writes:

To get out of the box, today's labor movement pins its hopes on the Employee Free Choice Act. This proposal would require a company like Smithfield to negotiate a union contract if a majority of workers sign union cards. It would avoid the kind of union election that took place in 1997, where the idea of voting freely became a farce in an atmosphere of violence and terror. EFCA would also put penalties on employers who fire workers for union activity. At Smithfield, the company was only obliged to pay fired workers for their lost wages, and even then was allowed to deduct any money they'd earned during the decade their cases wound through the legal system. EFCA would substantially restrict the kind of anti-union campaign Smithfield mounted for 15 years.

EFCA would reform labor law in this area by creating real penalties for unfair labor practices, such as:

  • Civil fines of up to $20,000 per violation against employers found to have willfully or repeatedly violated employees' rights during an organizing campaign or first contract drive.
  • Triple back pay for workers fired or discriminated against for pro-union activity during a drive.
  • Having the NLRB seek a federal court injunction when there is reason to believe a company has violated workers' rights during a drive, such as firing or threatening to fire union supporters.

For more statistics on workplace intimidation, check out the recent Facing South newsletter index, Anti-union bullying by the numbers. For more information on the Smithfield campaign, read How Employee Free Choice Act Would Have Helped at Smithfield.

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re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

There's no good reason why free men should be prevented by law from uniting as they see fit. Republicans want to preserve for employers the role of overlord. They are a disgrace.

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

Personally I hope Unions get stronger in America because the greedy CEO's, Bankers and Wall Street are arrogant and are fleecing the working man either directly or in-directly. http://www.southernstudies.org/2009/03/worker-suppression.html

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

If the unions are so smart and know how to treat individuals, why don't they open their own businesses? I bet they can buy the Big Three for pennies on the dollar. It costs less than $500 to incorporate in Delaware (including the registered agent fee), which has the best business law in the country. Is it because they can't intimidate buyers into using their products? Is it because they know their products wouldn't be able to compete in an open market?

Employees basically ask employers if they can be part of their dream? If someone asked you for money and you gave them $100 and they came back and said they wanted more, how would you respond? Would you give them more or tell them that it's either this or nothing at all?

Unions do nothing but feather their nests. When was the last time you heard of a union reducing its dues to help its workers? How much money have the unions donated to a Republican candidate? I'm quite certain that some of their members are Republicans. Do they really represent every member in their organization?

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

Whether unionization is positive for business, the workforce, or the economy is a conversation best left to someone in a field other than mine. As an I/O Psychologist my interest lies in organizational success through the well-being of employees.

If no other good comes from EFCA, at least it is forcing companies to have an important conversation. In searching for ways to combat unionization, employers are realizing they need engaged employees – who feel communicated to, safe, valued, and a strong commitment to the company. I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter from the legal community about the need for ‘union vulnerability audits’ to ensure a satisfied workplace where unions are viewed unnecessary. Whether or not the EFCA passes I think employees (and organization) will benefit from the discussion.

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

Smithfield's Tar Heel packing plant is 15 minutes by car from where I sit typing this. It's an enormous, grim-looking place straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. Smithfield Tar Heel is a corporate hellhole. Commenter "slake" should work in such a place for however long he needs to learn his statement "Employees basically ask employers if they can be part of their dream" is that of someone who lives in a vacuum of ignorance and unconcern.

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

Unions don't intimidate....that would be completely unproductive...that is a "false flag" arguement by the Chamber of Commerce and Big Business who want to put workers at a disadvantage and squeeze out more profit for themselves..as any one who has been watching what these greedy people have done to our economy, knows. After the devestation these thoughtless, selfish, corporate pigs have visisted upon the financial industry..no way would I trust a thing they say..if they are against EFCA...you can bet it would be good for the workers..the EFCA is simply a vote, leaving it up to the employee to either hold a secret vote or a card check vote for a union representative to talk to them about unionizing, the "management" would have to comply, under the law...we had that right once...but like so many other of our rights..those rights have been slowly taken away by corporations and a Congress who have been "compromised" by corporate "donations" and corporate lobbyists.

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

Your comment shows you think unions are somehow separate from the members. Unions are the members method of relating (with some degree of equality) to their employer. All decisions are made by majority rule, one member, one vote. Unions do nothing but advance the employees interests, and do not make a profit, as in "feather their own nest". On average, union members make $8000+ more than their non-union counterparts, so dues are more than offset. In the political arena unions support politicians that advocate for them, like all groups active in politics. It is illegal to use dues money for political contributions, all union money in elections is freely donated by the members for that purpose.A graph of the falling purchasing power of the producers can almost exactly be overlaid on the decline in union membership since about 1980. To see where we as a nation are headed, just examine the U.S. before the advent of unions.... starting work at 7 years old and dieing of black lung at 39, and all the other documented horrors employers saw as acceptable for the workers. Unions are the main reason the middle class exists. Remember, unions always were and remain the peoples answer to corporate tyranny.

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

a union's primary goal is to pursue gains for it's members, just as a for-profit corporation's primary goal is to pursue profit. There is no reason for a union to incorporate, in fact it is antithetical to it's definition. Although I do agree that it would be good if the UAW had an ownership stake in the Big Three automakers. I guarantee that the long term sustainability of the company would have been the first priority, not simply higher profits this quarter than last.
As a union electrician, I can tell you that every union contractor I have worked for has been a union electrician themselves. They have chosen to be a union contractor because employing union labor makes them more competitive, not less.
And I need to correct your assumptions about the relationship between employers and employees. Employers sell a service or a product to customers. In order to provide that service or product, they hire employees. These employers sell to the customer for more $$$ than they pay the employee to make the product or provide the service. And the employee wants to make as much $$$ as he or she can for their time. Rarely is the relationship as idealistic as you assume. I've never even asked my employers what they dream about, much less if I could be a part of that dream.
Due to the downturn in the economy, many electricians in my local union here in southern California are out of work. Our union actively tries to help it's members who are out of work in many ways, including reducing or deferring dues. What you may not realize is unions are democratic organizations. We all get to vote on our local union officials and communicate constantly with them. I get the impression that you think unions are authoritarian, hierarchical organizations, where the workers have no say. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that is the description of a corporation. And why should any union spend it's members dues to support a Republican party that is entirely anti-worker? Can you name any Republican legislation in the last 25 years that has benefited the worker over the wealthy?

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

So San Diego has many electricians out of work? LOL what an interesting observation you have there. You mean, government can't create programs fast enough to provide customers to intimidate into funding your bids and your bids only? Newsflash fool - there's whole towns out of work in a state that's out of funds in no small part due to union demands. Sorry to burst your bubble but nobody owes you employment, no matter how deserving you think you are.

re: Anti-union intimidation on the rise

i just got fired for union activity at dart cont.the owner is so greedy he give up his citianzs ship to the u s so he didnt have to pay income tax