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Union Members Need Not Apply
Written by Erin Johansson   
May 18, 2005

Just as it’s against the law for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, age, or disability in hiring practices, it’s illegal to not hire someone because of their union affiliation.  Yet that’s exactly what happened to eight electricians in Nebraska.  Although the National Labor Relations Board just ruled in their favor, the case demonstrates that while discrimination is technically illegal, a weak and delay-ridden labor law system renders it an effective strategy for an employer to remain union-free. 

In February 1996, Progressive Electric, a non-union contractor in Lincoln, NE, advertised in a local paper that it was hiring electricians. Eight electricians, openly members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, applied for the positions.  Yet when they met with the company president, they were told Progressive Electric didn’t have any open positions but he would keep their contact information on file.  Instead, the president threw away their information.  And during the months to follow, Progressive Electric continued to advertise its need for electricians, except it did so without revealing its identity. 

In the meantime, the union representing the electricians repeatedly inquired about the status of the applications.  Because of the company’s refusal to even consider hiring the qualified electricians, the union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Prioritizing Workers’ Rights:

Budget for the Department of Interior to preserve and improve sport fishing:
$330 million2

Annual budget for the
National Labor Relations Board:
$231 million3

On November 18, 1997, an administrative law judge (ALJ) ruled that Progressive Electric discriminated against the union applicants when it refused to hire them, despite their qualifications.  The judge also found Progressive Electric violated the law by changing its hiring practices when it placed ‘blind’ advertisements.  The ALJ ordered Progressive Electric to hire the electricians.  Instead, the employer appealed this decision to the Board.

Over seven years later, the Board finally ruled on the case and agreed with most of the original ALJ decision.  In its March 31, 2005, ruling, the Board agreed that Progressive Electric violated the law by refusing to hire the applicants because of their union affiliation, and ordered the company to hire them.1  Arguing the Board should have gone further, one Board member concurred with the ALJ ruling that the blind advertisements were illegal because the ads were "undertaken in order to screen out union applicants."

The union electricians will not be joining the staff of Progressive Electric, nor galvanizing an organizing effort at the facility anytime soon.  The employer once again avoided hiring these applicants by appealing the Board decision to a circuit court of appeals, which could take several more years to resolve.  

Thanks to an appeals process that allows employers to delay the repercussions of breaking the law, Progressive Electric has remained union free for nine years.  Instead of serving as an example of how the law protects employees against discriminatory hiring, this case just reveals the ease with which employers can nip any union effort in the bud.
1. Progressive Electric Inc344 NLRB 47 (2005).
3. Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the National Labor Relations Board by American Rights at Work on Oct. 27, 2004.
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