Workers face increasing abuse in attempts to form unions

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On Capitol Hill, labor law experts and a California worker exposed the ugly truth about corporate abuses of workers trying to exercise their freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life.

At the center of the discussion: Kate Bronfenbrenner’s new report, “No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing,” released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the American Rights at Work Education Fund. The report shows that the problems the Employee Free Choice Act would address are getting worse.

Bronfenbrenner has studied these issues for decades as the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Relations. This is her fourth survey over 20 years, enabling her to put into historical perspective the obstacles workers face today.

At the Capitol Hill briefing, Bronfenbrenner said weak laws and a hostile environment have emboldened corporations, over the past decade, to step up their abuses against workers trying to form unions.

The research provides a detailed portrait of a system that has failed private-sector workers. Workers have come to understand what our data confirms: Employers are using an arsenal of legal and illegal tactic to interfere with workers trying to organize, and they are doing it with impunity.

The study is the result of an in-depth examination of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) documents, examination of companies, interviews with workers and investigations of unfair labor practice filings, to give a clear picture of what the process of forming a union really looks like. And it’s not pretty:

* 63 percent of companies have supervisors interrogate workers in mandatory one-on-one meetings. * 57 percent of companies threaten workers with plant closings. * 47 percent threaten to cut wages and benefits.

What’s more, even if they win representation, a majority of workers still don’t have a first contract after a year.

Angel Warner, a working mom from California, offered a compelling story of these coercive tactics in action. Warner is a Rite Aid warehouse worker who tried to form a union through the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) at a large warehouse with 600 workers. The warehouse was inadequately heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, and the work was difficult and at times unsafe. That’s why Warner and her co-workers hoped to form a union. Wages and benefits were an issue, she said, but not the only issue. Mostly, they were concerned about job security and improving safety on the job, especially after management imposed a quota system that encouraged unsafe behavior.

You walk a fine line of taking a trip to the hospital or a trip to the unemployment line.

We like our jobs, we just want dignity, respect and a voice in our workplace. A person can only take so much—we decided it was time to stand up for ourselves.

Warner said that, as she and her-co-workers tried to form a union, management pulled union supporters aside for threatening meetings and singled out potential supporters for harassment. Pro-union employees were fired, and the workers filed 49 labor law violations against Rite-Aid—but the only repercussion for Rite-Aid is having to re-hire two employees and post fliers saying they would no longer engage in unfair practices.

Warner and her co-workers won the election by only a handful of votes, even after getting two-thirds of the employees to sign up, because of the extended election period and the abuses by management during that time. The election was held two years after starting the process of gathering signatures, Warner said, and even after a year of having won a union, the company still hasn’t offered a contract.

Our labor laws are not working, they’re not protecting the working class. We played by the rules. Even after harassment and threats, we voted for a union, and yet we’re still working without a contract. People are terrified of losing their jobs. It puts such a psychological and emotional pressure on you. It’s hard to function in the workplace because you’re so scared—you walk through the door and you don’t know, is this going to be the day that I walk out with my pink slip?

We have responsibilities to our families, our children. The working class needs help, we’re tired of waiting for justice. I urge Senators and Congresspeople that are on the fence, or have changed their minds, to look at people like me and the people I work with, and the thousands like me, because we’re not unique.

Workers’ rights need to be upheld. We’re ready to stand up for ourselves.

Fred Feinstein, a former NLRB counsel and a University of Maryland professor, agrees that existing labor law isn’t protecting workers. Warner’s story isn’t an exception, Feinstein said—it’s one vivid example of a pervasive failure of labor law:

There’s room for better enforcement and better strategies but fund the law itself is defective.

There’s considerable evidence that over the last decades, new tactics have been developed, weaknesses in the law have been discovered, refined and more successfully exploited, so that conditions on the ground have changed…we need to change the legal framework if we’re going to protect people.

Extended delay is a powerful weapon for employers, Feinstein said, because it ensures years of litigation to prevent remedies for their misbehavior.

And, said EPI President Larry Mishel, that this isn’t just an issue of fairness, it’s an economic issue. We’ve seen a 30-year period of rising inequality that didn’t allow people to have a good paycheck, he notes, which has undermined our economy by cutting back on workers’ purchasing power and security. As we rebuild the economy, we need to make sure it’s on a strong foundation.

One clear foundation is to fix the fundamentally broken labor market system—we have an economy that has been producing higher productivity, but most workers haven’t been able to benefit.

Companies are trying to pre-empt union campaigns, targeting union supporters and interrogating workers to find out how they’re going to vote. (Yes, that’s the reality of the “secret ballot” corporate lobbies are trying to impose.) Corporate tactics are designed to make the process less secret and less secure for workers who hope to join unions. Increasingly, management is working to monitor and punish union activities and force workers to choose sides. Said Bronfenbrenner:

We’ve found a climate of employer opposition that revealed a clear pattern of interrogation and surveillance…followed by threats and harassment to make sure that workers who pursue a union do so at clear personal risk.

Bronfenbrenner said that although she studied many unfair labor practice filings, many abuses aren’t even reported, because a climate of fear, weak remedies and long delays prevent workers from protesting unfair practices.

Warner said the common corporate complaint—that workers could act coercively as they campaigned to get their co-workers to form a union—was laughable and unsupported by facts.

From a worker’s point of view, the harassment and intimidation I’ve seen has come from the company side.

Bronfenbrenner and Feinstein both agreed that decades of research into organizing campaigns show this to be the case across the board. Historically, the number of unfair labor practice filings against unions is extremely low—only 42 cases of misconduct over seven decades—while there are nearly 30,000 unfair labor practices against workers by companies every year. People who say both sides are at fault aren’t to be taken seriously, Bronfenbrenner said:

Unions wouldn’t function if workers were coerced. The whole idea of having a union, of the organizing process, relies on workers feeling they have a democratic process, and believing in their union. Workers can vote their way out of a union at many phases—you don’t get to vote against your boss, and employers have enormous power over workers. They can fire you, they control your schedule, your pay, your working conditions.