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Unionbusting at "The Office"

michaeloffice_sq100.jpgAnyone who's a fan of the hit TV show "The Office" knows Dunder-Mifflin employees need a union - or something - to deal with their bumbling boss Michael.  On a recent episode, the warehouse workers finally expressed the need for a union to improve their workplace. But when the corporate boss Jan found out about it, she illegally threatened employees that the Dunder-Mifflin plant would close and that they would lose their jobs if they formed a union

"I am told that there has been some interest in forming a union and that Michael supported it.  Obviously, he is not a friend of yours because he didn't tell you the facts; so let me.  If there is even a whiff of unionizing in this branch, I can guarantee you that the branch will be shut down like that.  They unionized in Pittsfield, and we all know what happened in Pittsfield. It will cost each of you a fortune in legal fees and union dues and that will be nothing compared to the cost of losing your jobs, so I would think long and hard before sacrificing your savings and your future just to send a message."

Every week “The Office” offers up plenty of hilariously outrageous situations that you’d never imagine happening at your own office.  But this time the show served up the hard truth about how far employers will go to stop their employees from forming a union.

It’s unfair and illegal for Dunder-Mifflin to threaten workers in this manner.  But can we chalk it up to another Hollywood dramatization? How many companies actually go as far as Dunder-Mifflin did to threaten to close up shop to keep workers from forming a union? 

49% of employers openly threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union.*

That's right—half of employers faced with a union organizing drive threaten workers that they won't have a job if they vote for a union.  What's even more outrageous is that it's illegal for employers to do so.  Yet half do!  And many are never held accountable.

And while it’s usually Michael who's not operating by the book, in this episode Jan, from Dunder-Mifflin's corporate office, made the 'mistake.' If she had hired one of the thousands of highly-paid "anti-union consultants " out there, she could have avoided this misstep by being coached to give practically the same speech with a few subtle differences to ‘technically’ not violate the law.  But would these few words really lessen the impact of the threat to the workers?

"I am told that there has been some interest in forming a union at this warehouse.  Don’t be led astray by your so-called friends pushing the union.  They won’t tell you all the facts; so let me. They unionized in Pittsfield, and we all know what happened there.  Three years later, the facilities are deserted and the workers are still on the streets with nothing to show for all the union dues they paid.  Voting union could cost you a fortune in legal fees and union dues and that would be nothing compared to the cost of losing your jobs, so I would think long and hard before gambling your savings and your future just to send a message."

Regardless of how she chose her words—in either scenario—a threat is a threat and it's coercive to workers.  Yet that's the unfortunate situation for workers who feel the effect of our weak labor law system.  Thankfully, a show we can count on to help us laugh at the ridiculousness of our worklives, brought attention to the absurd reality faced by workers simply trying to form a union.

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Source:  Theodore, Nik and Chirag Mehta, Undermining the Right to Organize: Employer Behavior During Union Representation Campaigns , Center for Urban Economic Development, University of Illinois at Chicago, Dec. 2005