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Why are Workers' Rights Violations So Rampant?

The right to form a union and collectively bargain is a basic right, recognized by U.S. federal law since 1935 and universally recognized and protected around the world.  So why is it that over 20,000 workers are fired or discriminated against each year for union activities in this country?1   One reason workers’ rights violations are so widespread is because the American labor law system offers terribly weak punishments.

American Employers Face No Effective Reprisals for Violating Workers’ Rights 

  • A Slap on the Wrist:  If an employer is found guilty of violating labor law, the typical remedy is ordering the employer to post a notice in the workplace promising not to break the law.
  • No Punitive Damages:  Employers that illegally fire workers for union activity are not required to pay fines or damages.  The law just requires a worker’s lost earnings to be repaid, minus whatever amount the worker earned in the interim.
  • Bargain Prices:  In 2003, the average “backpay” award for a worker was $3,800.2  Human Rights Watch has assessed that employers are aware that an order to pay backpay is a “small price to pay to destroy a workers’ organizing effort by firing its leaders.”3
  • No Three-Strikes Law:  Repeat violations can continue indefinitely because the NLRA does not provide for tougher penalties for repeat violators, in contrast to OSHA, EPA and other governmental agencies.
  • Technicalities:  The government turns a blind eye to behavior undermining the intention of the law.  75% of employers hire consultants during organizing drives.4  These “unionbusting” consultants help companies implement legal tactics to thwart workers’ rights to organize without technically breaking the law.

Workers’ Rights Violations Escalate With Ineffective Laws

Auto maintenance service workers employed by U-Haul in Nevada experienced first-hand the inadequacy of labor law remedies.  Workers at two facilities sought to form a union with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (Machinists) to improve working conditions and wages and benefits.  

Some minority workers claimed they were compensated by U-Haul at dramatically different levels than coworkers with the same responsibilities.  Other workers desired a union for dignity on the job.  Salvador Campos, whose father is Mexican and mother is Puerto Rican, often heard a manager insult the minority workers waiting in line for parts to fix the vehicles: "You dumb Puerto Ricans...This is the Mexican line, this is the Puerto Rican line."

In February 2003, hours after the workers filed a petition to hold a union representation election, U-Haul fired four workers.  That scare tactic didn’t stop the workers dead in their tracks, so U-Haul ramped up its efforts to remain union-free.  Over the course of the organizing drive, U-Haul fired 39 workers and closed down one facility.  In spite of the strong resistance from U-Haul and the risks involved, the remaining employees voted 2:1 for union representation in May 2003.

Yet the election victory was merely symbolic because the U-Haul workers are without a collective bargaining agreement.  For over 18 months, U-Haul has not honored its legal duty to negotiate with its workers over the terms and conditions of their employment.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) eventually issued a complaint in February 2004 charging the company with multiple illegal acts, including firing employees because of their union activities, firing a supervisor for refusing to violate workers’ rights, closing a facility because of the workers’ organizing activities, interrogating employees about union sentiments and activities, and refusing to recognize and bargain with the union.5 

While serious legal charges against U-Haul's anti-union conduct before, during, and after the election are pending at the NLRB, the mechanics are still no closer to equitable treatment, improved wages, or a first contract than they were over a year ago when they voted to form a union. 

Because U-Haul will never face serious economic or criminal consequences if the NLRB’s charges against the company are upheld, there is little reason to believe that the government will deter the company from acting illegally.   Recently, the company was charged with illegally firing pro-union workers in California and was ordered by an Administrative Law Judge to reinstate them with backpay and to post a notice.6


1  According to 1993-2003 NLRB Annual Reports, an average of 22,633 workers per year received backpay from their employer. The NLRB orders employers to award backpay to workers they illegally fired, demoted, laid off, suspended without pay, or denied work as a result of their union activity.
2 Sixty-Eighth Annual Report of the National Labor Relations Board, 2003. 
3  Human Rights Watch, Unfair Advantage: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards," 2000.
4  Kate Bronfenbrenner, Uneasy Terrain: The Impact of Capital Mobility on Workers, Wages and Union Organizing,” U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission, 2000.
5  NLRB February 5, 2004, Region 28, Order Further Consolidating Cases, Fifth Consolidated Complaint, and Notice of Hearing.
6  Airoldi, Robert.  “Two Fired U-Haul Workers Win Suit: Firm Dismissed Men for Trying to Organize Union.”  The Oakland Tribune.  February 25, 2004.