Dorian Warren on Why We All Need a Strong Labor Movement

Jul 18, 2011Bryce Covert

dorian-warrenI got the chance to talk with Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren, who just published new research on workplace anti-union campaigns. We discussed his surprising findings about illegal employer intimidation tactics, the labor movement's biggest weaknesses, and why comprehensive labor reform would amount to some of the best economic stimulus we could find.

Bryce Covert: You recently published new research on workplace intimidation tactics against union organizing. Can you explain the important findings that came out of your work?

Dorian Warren: As background, let me start by saying that we already know what happens when workers try to organize into a union: employers routinely violate the law. They use a range of legal and illegal tactics. The most egregious one is firing workers who are seen as union leaders or union influencers, and that happens in about 34% of union election campaigns. A number of other illegal tactics include threatening workers, threatening to close the plant, threatening to close the shop, illegal pay raises, that kind of stuff.

The other thing to note is that usually when workers file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for an election, the wait from the date they file a petition to when the election is scheduled is really long. Throughout all that time, employers engage in anti-union campaigns, again using these legal and illegal tactics. So the National Labor Relations Board proposed a rule change to potentially decrease the number of days between when workers file a petition and form election and when the election is scheduled and held.

The research that I did with my coauthor Kate Bronfenbrenner was to look at the timing of when employer campaigns start through the election and what difference the proposed rule change would make. What we found was that the employer campaign starts very early. It definitely starts once workers start filing a petition for election, it continues constantly, and the number of tactics they use are multiple. So every single day before an election the employer campaign is constant, the tactics are cumulative, and it's unrelenting.

But the surprising finding is that employer campaigns start even before workers petition. So let's say Target or WalMart hires new employees and as part of the orientation it gives them an anti-union video to watch. From day one that's basically an employer anti-union campaign. Then it's constantly probing and trying to find out if there's any talk of unionization. The employer knows that workers are talking about potentially wanting a union, and they start doing things way before workers even file a petition to ask for an election. The longer employers can delay an election, the more time they have to harass and intimidate workers. But our research shows that from before the workers file a petition to when they file a petition, leading all the way up to an election and even after the election if they win the election, the employer's still using these tactics to intimidate and harass workers.

BC: What are the details of the NLRB rule change proposal and what are its implications?

DW: The proposal is to streamline the NLRB election process, which is very clunky. There are lots of delays and it takes a long time for workers to actually get an election. It would also prevent employers from attempting to delay. Workers usually file for election, the election date is set, but then close to the election date the employer files a claim with the National Labor Relations Board, usually falsely accusing the union of some kind of unfair practice or tactic, which then the Board has to investigate. So they delay the election. Then after the investigation, which usually finds nothing wrong, the election is rescheduled, and then that starts all over again. This rule would say there will be no delays. There will be an investigation after the election as opposed to postponing elections to investigate these delays, so-called infractions, either by employers or the union. The idea would be obviously that these changes would give workers a better chance to unionize free of intimidation and coercion.

Assuming this rule change goes through, it would make it potentially easier for workers to organize because they wouldn't be subject to the employer campaign for as long and therefore would probably end up winning more union elections. It will make organizing easier in a climate where employers are absolutely hostile by default and break the law because the penalties aren't that strong.

Employers are going crazy about this. The Chamber of Commerce is going crazy about this proposed rule change because they know that this would make it easier for unions to organize.

BC: If the rule goes through, does it address what you identified in your research? What goes unaddressed?

DW: The only thing that would address what we found in our research would be comprehensive labor reform. But obviously the political possibility for that is zero. This rule change would help address what we find, but it's not going to eliminate the employer campaign. Employers are still going to violate the law and fire people and threaten people. They'll just have a shorter time to do it, so hopefully it won't have as much impact on workers as it does now. This rule change does nothing about our big finding that employers already violate the law before workers even file for a petition. Those practices are still going to happen and employers are still going to be spying on workers, essentially, to see if there's any talk of a union and then go into action immediately when they hear it.

It's a systemic problem. There's really nothing that would change it. There are no quick fixes in terms of what the National Labor Relations Board can do. They really need legislative change to alter the incentive structure against employers violating the law.

BC: Are there other short-term things that can be done right now short of comprehensive reform?

DW: After this I'm not sure what's left. There was another rule change that another federal agency did issue. The National Labor Relations Board covers all private sector workers except transportation workers. Railroad and airline workers are covered by the Railway Labor Act. If you're an airline worker and you want a union, the election goes to the National Mediation Board, not the NLRB. Last year, with two pro-labor Obama appointees, the National Mediation Board made a rule change for their election rules. In political elections, basically whoever gets the majority of the vote wins, and the same with the NLRB union elections. The Railway Labor Act was always different. It said that a majority of all workers was what it took to win unionization. So if people didn't show up to vote you were kind of screwed. Basically if someone didn't show up that was a no vote. The rule change was to make it similar to the National Labor Relations Board and our basic election rules for political campaigns -- just a majority of who shows up. They issued that rule change last year and again business groups went crazy. One of the implications of that is probably thousands of flight attendants at a couple of airlines, something like forty or fifty thousand flight attendants, are going to have elections to decide whether they want to join a union or not.

But after that I'm not sure what else the Board can do. They're already trying to speed up the processing of cases when employers or unions, but really employers, violate the law. There has to be an investigation and there's a trial to see if the employer violated the law, and then there's a ruling. There are hundreds if not thousands of cases and there's always a backlog because Republicans are trying to defund the Board and compromise its work.

After this latest rule change that's pretty much it. That's all they can really do.

BC: Ignoring politically impossibility, what would a modern-day Wagner Act to update labor laws look like?

DW: The first thing is there'd be no occupational exclusions. We should have a national campaign right now to take out the occupational exclusions of the Wagner Act. We know the history of why they're in there in the first place. It's unacceptable that they're still in. No worker should be denied protection or the fundamental right to freedom of association.

The second thing would be really, really strong penalties for violations of the law. Ideally it would match the whole system of employment law, including all the anti-discrimination laws like sex discrimination, race discrimination, age, disability. For instance, if employers fire a worker for union activity, the only penalty is that they have to hire the worker back and they have to post a sign in the workplace saying they won't do it again and potentially pay the worker back pay. That's not a strong incentive against violating the law. Unlike, say, anti-discrimination law, where you can sue for punitive damages, which works as a stronger sanction against employers for violating the law. Even raising the penalties so that you create strong incentives for employers to actually obey the law would be important. The potential for class action lawsuits when employers violate workers rights, the potential for triple or even hundred times back pay if they fire workers, really huge fines, punitive sanctions for violating any workers rights -- that would be, I think, ideal in any kind of twenty first century Wagner Act.

It’s free! Sign up to have the Daily Digest, a witty take on the morning’s key headlines, delivered straight to your inbox.

BC: To play devil's advocate, many say that pro-labor reforms in a recession will hamper businesses from creating jobs. What do you say to that?

DW: In the preamble to the National Labor Relations Act, the justification is to level the playing field so that workers can bargain for higher wages with employers, which would then help the economy and help get us get out of the Depression because it would fundamentally give workers consumption power. They'd buy more goods and services, which would create more jobs, which would help the economy. It's economic stimulus, essentially.

I would say the same thing is true now. The problem has been that with wage stagnation for forty years, people had to take on debt to keep up with inflation and to buy basic things because they weren't getting raises. If we were to pass a new Wagner Act today that gave workers the right to organize free of intimidation, they could bargain for higher wages with employers, who have record profits, and that would help to stimulate the economy again. First, it would help people get out of underwater mortgages, and second, it would help people be able to buy more stuff. Especially in an economy that's 70% based on consumption, actually giving workers more bargaining power is a form of stimulus.

BC: Following that logic, with all the backward movement against labor -- what happened in Wisconsin, the Supreme Court decision on WalMart -- is there an anti-stimulus effect from these attacks?

DW: Part of that process of downward mobility has been the loss of pensions and economic security for private sector workers, especially with declining unionization, which is only 7% in the private sector down from almost a third in the 1940s. The aim of these attacks on public sector workers is to put them in the same boat as private sector workers -- strip them of pensions, strip them of the ability to bargain for higher wages. In that sense I do think there is a huge effect on the economy because with higher unemployment and as people lose their bargaining power they're not going to be able to purchase more stuff. Also, as people lose their pensions I can't even imagine what that's going to do in terms of pushing older people into the workforce longer at the same time that there's probably going to be an increase in age discrimination.

For all those reasons, I think the attacks are very dangerous. It's basically figuring out a way to eliminate the middle class, which is just absurd to me, and to fundamentally destroy the labor movement, because the public sector is now the strongest part of the labor movement. A majority of unions are public sector workers for the first time in history. They're not in the private sector. And think about teachers and the attacks on teacher's unions: one in four union members in this country is a teacher. It's mind-blowing actually. It's also a political attack and an explicit attempt to weaken the strongest base of the Democratic Party.

BC: In your view, what can the labor movement focus on right now to help the tide flow in the other direction?

DW: The labor movement's big Achilles' heel is the fact that it never organized the South. That's important for two reasons. It's important for labor's strength because the South is a whole different economy. Because it was a non-union economy, it actually ended up destroying the manufacturing sector and the labor movement. The auto industry essentially moved to different states to get out of UAW contracts.

The second implication is political. Because labor has a huge influence on how workers vote, it's not coincidental that the South is pretty Republican and pretty right-wing. If you're a white working class man there's basically a twenty-point gap between whether or not you'll vote Democrat or Republican and it's all based on union membership. So if you're a white working class man and you're in a union, you're much more likely to vote Democrat than Republican -- it's the union difference. If you're a white working class woman you're already a little bit more likely to vote Democratic, but you're much more likely if you're a member of a union.

There has to be some really transformative strategy and real commitment, even if it's just targeting three key states for instance, for labor to organize the South. It would help make the labor movement stronger but also change the politics of the country, frankly. Labor's been the core base of the Democratic Party since the New Deal. It seems extraordinarily short sighted that the party is looking at the destruction of its base and just standing by like a deer in headlights, and in some cases aiding and abetting the attack on labor.

BC: Many saw what happened in Wisconsin as a sign of the labor movement's reinvigoration. Do you have hope for the future of the movement?

DW: I have a different take on Wisconsin. Yes it was great that people mobilized, but I would stop short of what others have called it -- a victory of some kind. I'm not very hopeful at all, even of Wisconsin. That was a moment. And we lost, frankly. And we're losing in more than a dozen states around the country. Wisconsin's either a sign of reinvigoration or a sign of the last gasp. I think people over-interpreted it. I want to be more sober about it and say okay, where do we go form here, what's the strategy? It's a defensive fight. We're the ones trying to defend fundamental rights. We lost. Now what do we do? What's our vision? First we have to get those rights back. And it's not like things were great before. What's our vision for revitalizing workers' rights broadly? Unless there are some serious breakthrough strategies that labor, that workers, can come up with, I think the labor movement has about five years to figure out how to stay alive. Otherwise it's all over.

There is a bit of good news. Last week there were recall elections in Wisconsin and all the anti-labor incumbents were defeated. That suggests that there is some sustainability and some momentum from what happened in February. That's hopeful. But we haven't seen the efforts of people to mobilize in Wisconsin in any other place. In Ohio, in New Jersey, in New Hampshire, in Michigan, Oklahoma, all across the country, there are these basically same bills, but there hasn't been the same kind of mobilization that was shown in Wisconsin. Something more has to happen on a large scale. I don't see it yet.

BC: You just described a very bleak picture. What's the difference between now and FDR's time, when there was a huge movement for labor rights in the midst of a depression?

DW: A couple of things. One key point was the 1934 sit-down strike of autoworkers. That helped to spark a movement to unionize industrial workers, whether in auto or steel or rubber or textiles. But that was five years into the Great Depression. I don't think we're at a point where workers overall feel like the existing system is discredited. Maybe we're getting there as these quarterly reports keep coming out on corporate profits and CEO salaries. I think we're getting there. It can't happen fast enough.

The second factor I think is that there was a real fight in the labor movement around a new model. The old craft model of unions that worked for the building trades, for instance, was not adequate for the new industrial economy. There had to be some other model of unionism, so industrial unionism was created in the 30s to match the new kinds of work and the new kinds of employers. I think we need a similar kind of breakthrough strategy now. What kind of unionism do we need for the current moment, for the current economy? We've been toiling at the edges. The labor movement has been trying different strategies incrementally, but there hasn't been a new model of unionism that can recruit people by the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

Third is frankly a question of presidential leadership. The 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act was the first time that workers were given the right to organize. Then it got declared unconstitutional, and then the response was the Wagner Act. But in both cases there were posters and signs that union organizers would walk around with and on them was FDR saying ‘the president wants you to join a union.' There was a sense that now the law is on your side, the president's on your side, it is your fundamental right to do this. I think we're absolutely lacking that today. There's no sense that the law is on the workers' side, there's no sense that the president is on workers' side.

There's this new effort, Caring Across Generations, to organize workers from early daycare workers to home health workers who work with seniors. It's promising. There's an effort to organize WalMart, there's an effort to organize warehouse workers who are actually part of a crucial supply chain to WalMart and other big box stores. That looks promising. There are efforts by restaurant workers, carwash workers. So there are all these pieces that are definitely promising. I think the big question is a question of scale. Can they scale up fast enough to really make an impact sooner than later, or have an impact sooner than later? That's what I'm worried about.

*For more on the Wagner Act, see Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson discuss its history and relevance to contemporary struggles at last year's panel at the FDR Library at Hyde Park, NY: "1935 and the Enduring New Deal" (click on video for Sept. 26, 2010).

Share This