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Employer Unionbusting and Weak Labor Laws Emerge as Explanations for Declining Union Membership

January 28, 2005

Kimberly Freeman
202-822-2127, ext. 111
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WASHINGTON, DC—Union membership declined by 304,000 from 2003 to 2004, according to new figures just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Current union density in all industries now stands at 12.5 percent, down from 12.9 percent the preceding year. 

American Rights at Work, a workers' rights advocacy organization, credits the pervasive practice of unionbusting and the rapid erosion of labor law for the accelerating decline.  "Union membership isn't falling because workers no longer want or need unions," says David Bonior, Chair of American Rights at Work. "Union membership is down because employers who implement unionbusting campaigns prevent their employees from exercising their legal right to form or join a union."

Unionbusting Practices Pervasive in the American Workplace

Through its Workers' Rights Clearinghouse, American Rights at Work has collected hundreds of stories from workers across the country who have been spied on, demoted, intimidated, and fired for union activities. According to research by Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner, 75 percent of employers facing organizing drives hire 'union- avoidance' consultants. At least 51 percent threaten to close down work sites if employees form a union. And, 25 percent fire pro-union employees.

As a result of employer anti-union campaigns, more than 23,000 workers are fired or experience discrimination for attempting to exercise their freedom of association.  Fifty years ago in the United States, when 30 percent of employees were union members, this number was only in the hundreds.   "And this figure is just the tip of the iceberg," says American Rights at Work Executive Director Mary Beth Maxwell. "The number only counts those workers who were brave enough to file charges against their employers and won their cases."

Last month The New York Times published a feature story exposing a malpractice case against famed 'union-avoidance' law firm, Jackson Lewis, which allegedly was paid $2.3 million in fees for just one unionbusting campaign in the South.  The case is shedding light on the role employer interference plays in the decline of union membership.

Current Labor Law System Fails to Protect Pro-Union Workers

Despite the prevalence of employer retaliation against pro-union employees, the federal agency charged with enforcing labor law issued decisions in 2004 that strip workers of legal protections.  The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) barred employees of temp agencies from organizing without both employer and agency permission.  The NLRB also reversed its precedent and decided that many disabled workers and graduate research and teaching assistants are not workers.   As a result of an NLRB decision last year, employers may now prohibit communications between workers expressing displeasure or anger over working conditions.  

"Workers who stand up for themselves are now in double jeopardy-attacked by their employer and abandoned by the federal agency created to protect them," says David Bonior.

Despite the overall decline, union membership is growing in the leisure and hospitality, public administration, and education and health services sectors.  "Against all odds, thousands and thousands of workers still chose to form unions," says Bonior. "It shouldn't be so difficult for them to exercise their legal rights. The status of our democracy is at stake when we don't guarantee that employees have a fair chance and free choice to join a union or not."

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