Yes, the National Labor Relations Act says workers have the right to organize and join unions. Yet a new study shows that growing numbers of them risk being fired for attempting to unionize.
In more than one-fourth of the union organizing campaigns since 2000 among workers covered by the law, some of the workers were illegally fired for being pro-union, according to the study by economists John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The latest yearly figures, for 2007, show that about 30 percent of the campaigns involved illegal firings.
The number of workers fired was relatively small – no more than 1,500 overall per year. But that included an estimated 20 percent of the activists and organizers in particular campaigns. What’s more, the threat of being fired undoubtedly kept many workers who otherwise would have supported unionization from doing so.
Not counted, either, were the unknown number of workers who were fired but didn’t raise complaints because of the lengthy legal process involved and the meager settlement they could expect – at best, reinstatement and back pay minus whatever they might earn at other jobs while awaiting a ruling.
Left out of the study entirely were public employees and railroad and agricultural workers, who are not covered by the Labor Relations Act. But it’s certain that at least some of them also face the prospect of illegal firing.
The reinstatement and back-pay penalties facing employers are so slight, as the study notes, that firing is a cost-effective way to block unionization.
Employers have been given "a powerful anti-union strategy: fire one or more prominent pro-union employees – typically workers 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 government-supervised elections in which workers vote on whether to unionize.
That’s been an important part of "a systematic attack on unions, especially on union efforts to organize new workers," that employers have been waging for more than two decades "with substantial legal support and cover."
It’s no wonder the proportion of workers belonging to unions has been dropping steadily, despite the Labor Relation Act’s stated purpose of encouraging unionization. Once, as many as one of every three workers was a union member. That’s still true of public employees. But only about one of every 13 workers in private employment is a member.
As the study makes clear, "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 form unions."
There’s a remedy for that – the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s been before Congress for several years, only to be blocked by Republicans. But it’s been gaining important new support from organized labor’s Democratic allies, including President Obama and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
The proposed law would impose fines of up to $20,000 per violation on employers who illegally fire union supporters or otherwise violate workers’
The key provision would automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer’s workers, rather than holding an election, as is now done in most cases. The choice of having an election is now left to employers, who choose that method because of the opportunity an election campaign gives them to pressure workers to oppose unionization.
Employers force workers to attend meetings at which they attack unions, often asserting that unionization will lead to pay cuts and layoffs or even force them out of business. Similar messages are delivered to workers one-on-one by supervisors, often along with threats of firing or demotion or other disciplinary action. The study also found that some employers give bribes or special favors to union opponents and aid to workers’ anti-union committees.
Allowing unionization to be granted on the showing of membership cards, and thus spare workers from employer intimidation, would not deny workers the democratic right to vote on unionization, as the Free Choice Act’s employer opponents and Republican allies falsely claim. If workers asked for an election, there’d be an election. Under current law, only employers can call for elections.
Although chances for passage of the act look good, the opposition is formidable. It includes many powerful corporate employers, the entire Republican establishment, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and such other stalwarts of the anti-union right as the Heritage Foundation and National Right to Work Committee.
Both the union supporters and the anti-union opponents have launched major nationwide campaigns. The outcome of their battle could have the most important impact on American workers since the passage in 1935 of the National Relations Act with its now often unfulfilled promises of basic rights for workers — among them the right to seek unionization without the risk of losing their jobs.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist, has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.