Union Busting Getting Worse, Study Shows


A new five-year study reveals that private sector employer opposition to the efforts of American workers to form unions has intensified and become more punitive in recent years.

Conducted by highly-regarded labor expert and Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, the study concludes that employers are using much more aggressive tactics — including threats of firing, actual firings, interrogation and plant-closing threats — in their campaigns to thwart workers’ organizing efforts.  The anti-union tactics used today, compared to those of 20 years ago, include more coercive and punitive tactics designed to intensely monitor and punish union activity.

A 2007 study by Richard B. Freeman of Harvard University, cited by Bronfenbrenner, found that if all workers who wanted a union were given the opportunity to have union representation, the percentage of union-represented workers in the U.S. would be 58 percent.  Instead, only 12.4 percent are represented by unions.  Bronfenbrenner’s study illuminates the reasons why, including the heavy-handed employer anti-unionism and the failures of current labor law, and a largely toothless National Labor Relations Board, to protect workers’ rights to democratically choose unionism.


“No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing” is published by the American Rights at Work Education Fund and the Economic Policy Institute and available for free download online.  Bronfenbrenner’s 26-page report provides one of the most compelling arguments for Congress to immediately pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and begin the process of restoring workers’ rights in the U.S.  Besides the full report, you can read and download a two-page summary and a press release describing the study here.

The report also compares employer behavior data during the study’s time period (1999-2003) to previous studies conducted by Bronfenbrenner’s research teams over the last 20 years.


According to Bronfenbrenner, it is standard practice — in union organizing campaigns — for workers to be subjected by corporations to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity.  From the 1999-2003 data, the study found the prevalence of the following actions by employers:

  • 63 percent interrogate workers in one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union.
  • 54 percent threaten workers in such meetings.
  • 57 percent threaten to close the worksite.
  • 47 percent threaten to cut wages and benefits.
  • 34 percent fire workers.

Even when workers succeed in forming a union, 52 percent still remain without a contract one year after they win the election, and 37 percent remain without a contract two years after the election.

At a briefing to unveil the results, Angel Warner, a worker with Rite Aid in California, trying to form a union and get a contract with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWA), said: “We wanted to form a union so we would be treated with dignity and could speak up without fear of losing our jobs.  Now we finally got through the harassment to form a union and we still don’t have a contract.  It shouldn’t be like this.  If my co-workers and I want a union, we should have one.”

Bronfenbrenner’s study documents the increased use by employers of more punitive tactics such as plant closing threats and actual plant closings, discharges, harassment, disciplinary actions, surveillance, and alteration of benefits and working conditions.


At the same time, employers are less likely to offer “carrots,” such as unscheduled raises, positive personnel changes, bribes, special favors, social events, promises of improvement, and employee involvement programs.

Private-sector campaigns differ markedly from public-sector ones, where 37 percent of workers belong to unions.  Survey data from the public sector describes an atmosphere in which workers may organize relatively free from the kind of coercion, intimidation, and retaliation that so taints the election process in the private sector.  Most of the states in the study’s public sector sample have laws allowing workers to choose a union through the majority sign-up process.

According to the report, the failure of the current system to defend workers’ rights in a timely manner multiplies the obstacles workers face when seeking union representation, adding further delays that favor employers over workers.

Bronfenbrenner finds that employers appeal a high percentage of the cases and, in the most egregious cases, the employer can count on a final decision being delayed by three to five years.  Of the few cases among those studied where a penalty was imposed, the heaviest penalty an employer had to pay was back pay, minus the worker’s interim wages.


The study also offers a strongly rebuttal to the most frequently-used attack on the Employee Free Choice Act — that the bill is somehow undemocratic because it allows union certification on the basis of majority card check in place of NLRB “secret ballot” elections.  After summarizing the coercive tactics used by anti-union employers, Bronfenbrenner writes:

“This combination of threats, interrogation, surveillance and harassment has ensured that there is no such thing as a democratic ‘secret ballot’ in the NLRB certification election process.  The progression of actions the employer has taken can ensure that the employer knows which way every worker plans to vote long before the election takes place.”

This article was first published by UE News Online on 26 May 2009.