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Economist: One in Five Union Organizers Gets Canned

Dean-baker-img_6763.jpg
Dean-baker-img_6763.jpg

Economist Dean Baker of CEPR speaking at the National Press Club, Tuesday.

One in five union activists gets illegally fired in the run-up to unionization elections, economist Dean Baker said at an event held at the National Press Club, Tuesday. Baker’s estimate is based on data compiled by the National Labor Relations Board and analyzed by Baker’s colleagues at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) — a liberal economic policy think tank in Washington.

The statistic is central to the progressive case for the Employee Free Choice Act, proposed legislation that would allow workers to bypass formal unionization elections in favor of an informal signup process known as a card check. Big business lobby groups like the Chamber of Commerce oppose the EFCA because the law would make union organizing much easier. But instead of arguing that less unionization is better, EFCA opponents claim that card check is undemocratic because it could mean workers can unionize without a secret ballot.

Baker argues that his statistic suggests that mandatory elections for contested unionization drives stifle workers’ democratic right to organize. According to Baker, employer harassment and retaliation are major and often under-recognized obstacles to unionization. He sees the EFCA as a way to equalize the power imbalance between labor and management so that workers can decide for themselves whether they want to organize.

A provision in the bill would allow workers to form a union without going through a formal National Labor Relations Board election. Instead, under a so-called card check system, workers sign cards to indicate that they want to unionize. If a majority signs up, the union is on its way to official recognition. Card check is already a legal way to form a union as long as the employer accepts the results and agrees to recognize the union. Often employers demand an NLRB election in the face of a card check majority to buy time to change workers’ minds.

Under the the NLRB election system, between the time an election is announced and the day of the vote, employees are vulnerable to coercion by management, Baker says. There’s a fundamental power imbalance: Bosses can fire organizers, but organizers can’t fire the bosses.

“There’s a tendency to dismiss [harassment, but] one in five organizers ends up getting fired, according to the NLRB,” Baker said on Tuesday.

In a follow-up email, Baker explained that the one in five figure came from CERP’s analysis of NLRB data, using an influential methodology developed by two scholars at the University of Chicago who used these methods to challenge claims of widespread intimidation of workers by management. The estimate uses data on the number of workers who were reinstated after the NLRB determined that they had been illegally fired. Just over half of all illegal terminations took place during a unionization drive. CEPR and the Chicago scholars assumed that only pro-union workers would be singled out for illegal termination during a union drive. We know how many pro-union workers there were in any given shop based on the published results of the election. The CEPR team further posited that organizers and activists, a small subset of overall workers, are more likely to be fired than less vocal pro-union workers. When the CEPR team crunched the numbers for 2005, they estimated that 15-20% of the union organizers involved in these drives were illegally terminated.

Baker argues that this level of risk is chilling unionization. Workers who want to be in a union are afraid to speak out, he says. The EFCA card check provision would protect workers’ ability to freely choose whether they want a union, he maintains.

Arguments like these are powerful ammunition for progressives in their impending fight over the EFCA. If NLRB elections are systematically plagued by intimidation and power imbalances between labor and management, it is difficult to argue that they are democratic.

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