May 20, 2009

Employers stepping up efforts to prevent unions in workplace, Cornell study finds

Employer tactics against workers' efforts to form unions have increased and are more punitive than in the past, according to a new four-year study by Kate Bronfenbrenner, senior lecturer in the ILR School and director of Labor Education Research.

Over the past two decades, some tactics used by companies against workers' organizing efforts have increased, according to the report. There is a greater focus on coercive tactics aimed at monitoring and punishing union activity.

Produced by American Rights at Work and the Economic Policy Institute and funded by several foundations, the report provides an analysis of employer behavior in union representation elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It also compares employer-behavior data from 1999 to 2003 with studies conducted over the last 20 years.

"In 2009, the overwhelming majority of workers who want unions do not have them," says the report. "The majority also believes that, due to employer opposition, they would be taking a great risk if they were to organize. For these workers, the right to organize and bargain collectively -- free from coercion, intimidation and retaliation -- is at best a promise indefinitely deferred."

In NLRB election campaigns, it is standard practice for workers to be subjected by corporations to retaliation for union activity, the report says.

According to the data collected for the study, 63 percent of companies interrogated workers; 54 percent threatened workers in such meetings; 57 percent threatened to close the worksite; 47 percent threatened to cut wages and benefits; and 34 percent fired workers.

For workers who successfully formed a union or won their election, 52 percent were without a contract a year later, and two years after the election, 37 percent were still without a contract.

Bronfenbrenner also found an increase in the use of plant-closing threats and actual plant closings, discharges, harassment, surveillance and alteration of benefits and conditions. At the same time, employers were less likely to offer workers such "carrots" as granting unscheduled raises, making positive personnel changes, promising improvement or offering bribes and special favors, social events and employee-involvement programs.

Private-sector unionizing campaigns differ markedly from public-sector campaigns, where 37 percent of workers belong to unions, Bronfenbrenner found. Public-sector survey data describe an atmosphere in which workers organize relatively free from the intimidation common in the private sector.

According to the report, once coercive behavior occurred, unions filed unfair labor-practice charges about 40 percent of the time; most allegations were of threats, discharges, interrogation, surveillance and wages and benefits altered for union activity.

Bronfenbrenner found that employers appealed many cases, and in the most egregious cases, employers ensured that a final decision was delayed by three to five years. In the sample, the heaviest penalty an employer had to pay was a few thousand dollars per employee in back pay.

Previous research and Bronfenbrenner's findings suggest that unions file unfair labor practices in fewer than half of elections. Filing charges where the election was likely to be won delayed the election for months or years, and workers said they feared retaliation for filing charges, especially where the election was likely to be lost.