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Working In These Times

Friday, Sep 16, 2011, 10:00 am

Union Busters Use Pro-Union Rule to Make Money, Intensify Efforts

BY Mike Elk

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a rule requiring all employers to put up a poster in their workplaces that informs workers of their right to unionize. The rule was hailed by many as a victory for organized labor.

“The rule is a responsible and much-needed step,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “Just as employers are required to notify their employees of their rights around health and safety, wages, and discrimination on the job, this rule gives clear information to employees about their rights under this fundamental labor law so that workers are better equipped to exercise and enforce them.”

But while some in organized labor praised the rule, the notorious union-busting firm Labor Relations Institute, Inc. began advertising plans on how companies could “effectively counter the NLRB one-sided posting requirements” and was quick to release a kit of similarly styled “counter-posters.” Whereas previously such anti-union posters were uncommon in the workplace unless a union-organizing drive was underway, the Labor Relations Institute saw an opening to use the new NLRB rule about workers' rights to create anti-union intimidation, advising businesses to use the “momentum and energy of your opponent against him.”

“As for the union busters, any pro-labor rule, regulation or policy is great business for them! They get to scare the crap out of employers, convincing them they need their services to stay union-free,” said Columbia University assistant professor Dorian Warren. “So this poster, which is no different from any other workplace or health and safety related postings in the workplace, is being used as a money-making scare tactic by these firms. It does prove our research correct about anti-union campaigns starting from the moment a worker is hired.”

Forthcoming research by Warren and Kate Bronfenbreener of Cornell University finds that “30 percent of serious violations against workers by employers occurred 30 days before the petition was filed and 47 percent of all serious allegations against employees occurred before the petition was filed,” making the anti-union poster kit emblematic of a recent trend by union busters to begin their busting before a union drive even starts.

Union organizing has been helped by a series of recent NLRB rules that eliminate frivolous challenges that delay union representation elections, limit unnecessary decertification elections, define bargaining-unit definitions to be more helpful to union organizing and require companies to post workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act, but these changes are modest. Plus, union busters can quickly adapt to and attempt to undermine new rules, as the case of the anti-union posters show. So perhaps the only way to stop union busting is by making the penalties so high that no company would dare illegally intimidate workers during a union-organizing drive.

While legislatively any labor law reform is politically unlikely, President Obama could largely stop union busting by signing a Clinton-era directive intended to stop companies that violate workers’ rights (and other laws) from receiving federal contracts. President Clinton’s “contractor responsibility rule” would have created guidelines, a centralized database and data standards to prevent bad actor corporations from receiving government contracts. The George W. Bush administration ended up blocking implementation of the orders.

The federal government rarely enforces the current laws that forbid law-breaking companies from receiving government contracts. As I reported in February, only a handful of major corporations that have committed major crimes have been suspended from receiving government contracts since the mid-1990s: General Electric (for a period of five days); now-defunct companies WorldCom, Enron and Arthur Anderson; Boeing (which received multiple waivers to receive new contracts during its suspension); and IBM (for a period of eight days in 2008).

As David Madland, director of the Center for American Progress' American Worker Project, wrote last year, “The current process for ensuring that the government only does business with responsible companies has been a failure for several reasons. Debarment—the process by which the government bans irresponsible firms from doing business with it—is rarely used, is too slow a process, and occurs after the fact. And responsibility review—the government’s tool to pre-screen every company’s legal record on a case-by-case basis before it does business with it—is weak and inadequate.”

By updating the standards, databases, rules and guidelines for enforcing contracting rules about which corporations get contracts, Obama could dramatically improve the pay of workers employed by companies on federal contracts by allowing them to unionize.

If Obama is serious about creating good jobs and getting the economy going, one thing he could do is enforce laws already on the books.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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