Labor unions are at their most popular in nearly half a century, and a growing number of American workers would join one if given the chance.
So why is the national union membership rate – or the percent of wage and salary workers who belong to a union – stuck at roughly 10%?
Part of the answer is likely that employers are doing everything they can to stifle workers’ efforts to unionize, and they’re getting away with it. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute highlights the breadth of the wrongdoing, noting that employers are charged with violating federal law in four out of every 10 union elections, and of illegally firing workers in one out of every five union elections.
“Employers routinely threaten, intimidate, and fire workers when they try to form a union at their workplace,” said Celine McNicholas, the institute’s director of government affairs and co-author of the report. “Employers face few consequences because our current labor law fails to provide workers meaningful protections.”
To take but a recent example: Workers at the Marciano Art Foundation (MAF), a private museum in Los Angeles, were dismissed en masse in November after attempting to form a union with AFSCME District Council 36. The workers are fighting back, demanding that their jobs be reinstated, that their union be recognized and that they be provided with basic workplace protections.
The EPI report provides analysis of employer conduct in union representation elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2016 and 2017. It found that in nearly a third of all elections, employers are charged with illegally coercing, threatening or retaliating against workers for union support, and that illegal behavior is more common among employers with larger bargaining units.
To prevent workers from organizing, employers spend nearly $340 million per year, hiring anti-union lawyers and consultants to guide their often-illegal tactics, according to the report, which also notes that well-known employers such as Coca-Cola, UPS, AT&T and Google have hired union avoidance consultants in the last five years.
The reason employers get away with such misbehavior, the authors explain, is that the National Labor Relations Act fails to provide strong-enough penalties to deter it. Moreover, the NLRB under the Trump administration has been especially bad for workers, significantly weakening worker protections.
“These findings should sound the alarm for policymakers and underscore the need for significant labor law reform to hold employers accountable and restore workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain,” McNicholas said.
The report proposes several policy solutions, including a law that would restrict employers’ most aggressive tactics against workers and impose meaningful penalties on violators.
Read the full report here.