The central legal principle of the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA, is to provide workers in the private sector with the democratic right to organize unions in the workplace. Through this union recognition process, workers gain the right to negotiate and maintain collective bargaining agreements with their employer over wages, hours and working conditions. However, for large numbers of workers, the rights established under this law no longer exist, because of willful employer violations and a lack of adequate statutory enforcement.
A number of studies have documented the problems and inadequacies associated with this law. For example, a recent work by labor researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University reveals how extensively the intent of the NLRA has been undermined. In her study, “No Holds Barred, The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing,” she states: “It has become standard practice for workers to be subjected by corporations to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance and retaliation for supporting a union.” Based on a review of data on National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, union election campaigns, Dr. Bronfenbrenner also found that:
• 63 percent of employers interrogate workers in mandatory one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union.
• 54 percent of employers threaten workers in such meetings.
• 57 percent of employers threaten to close the worksite.
• 47 percent of employers threaten to cut wages and benefits.
• And 34 percent of employers fire workers.”
In another study, Dr. Gordon Lafer concluded that “the NLRB election system has come to be defined by intimidating, coercive, and undemocratic employer behavior — both legal and illegal. Current federal law fails to protect the rights that the U.S. Congress thought it had bestowed to workers more than 70 years ago.”
The Employee Free Choice Act seeks to address major inadequacies in the current law through the enactment of the following changes:
1) Streamlining union certification by allowing unions to be certified by the NLRB in cases where a majority of eligible workers have signed union authorization cards.
2) Facilitating initial collective bargaining agreements by closing loopholes in the law that allow employers to engage in delays and intimidation against workers. Also, it provides for mediation and binding arbitration if a contract agreement is not reached within 90 days for a first contract.
3) Strengthening enforcement by providing greater NLRB penalties against employers who engage in unfair labor practices while employees are attempting to organize or obtain a first contract.
Many years ago, the preeminent U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis stated: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” For all too many workers, the right to obtain justice on the job through unionization has been either denied or delayed. Enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act will enable workers and their organizations to remedy this injustice.
Bill Murphy is director of the Bureau of Labor Education at the University of Maine. The briefing paper on which this column is based is available at: http://dll.umaine.edu/ble.