Corporate Lawlessness

Study finds Unfair Labor Practice Charges in 4 out of 10 of Union Elections

Until 1935, workers who wanted a union usually had to strike to get it. It was a recipe for perpetual industrial conflict. That’s why legislators passed the Wagner Act, providing an orderly way to adjust workplace disputes. Employers were forbidden to retaliate against workers for exercising their right to organize. When a group of workers wanted union representation, they could file for a workplace election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If a majority vote in favor of joining a union, the employer was legally required bargain in good faith with the union the workers had chosen. In theory, the Wagner Act vindicated the rights of workers while offering a path to industrial peace.

In theory, that is. The system only workers if management, which runs the workplace, adheres to the law.

When management violates the law – for instance, by firing or punishing a worker for supporting the union, or for failing to bargain in good faith with a union representing a majority of workers – the workers and their union file an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge with the NLRB. The Economic Policy Institute recently examined NLRB election data and ULP charges for the past few years. In a shocking but not surprising finding, they discovered that a ULP was filed in nearly 4 out of 10 NLRB elections.

What’s gone wrong? The short answer is that the penalties for violating the Wagner Act are negligible. One would hope that civic duty alone would oblige all employers to honor the law, but for a substantial minority, that’s not the case. Too many corporations are prepared to break the law in order to break a union organizing drive. They look at firing a union supporter not as criminal behavior but as an investment in remaining union-free. It’s hardly surprising that union membership has dropped from about one in three American workers in the 1950s to one in ten today.

Barring an unlikely civic reform among American business leaders, the only way to restore the balance between labor and management is a thorough reform of American labor law – starting with punitive damages for employers who retaliate against union supporters.


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