Unionization as a Civil Right

By Kahlenberg, Richard D. | The American Prospect, September 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Unionization as a Civil Right


Kahlenberg, Richard D., The American Prospect


Here is a Labor Day idea. Why not make the right to join a union a basic civil right? In theory the Wagner Act gives workers the right to freely vote in a union, but in practice the price to employers for violating the law is small. Employers who retaliate by firing workers are subject to orders to reinstate them and provide back pay. But this enforcement process takes time. According to National Labor Relations Board data for fiscal year 1998, the average backpay award against employers for unfair labor practices was $32,509, and the median time between the filing of charges and issuance of a board decision was 658 days. A small number of firings is often enough to intimidate other workers and break a unionization drive.

Employers know that wages of unionized workers are on average one-third higher than those of nonunionized workers, so they have a strong financial incentive to try to stop an organizing campaign by picking off a few ringleaders and paying the minor back-pay penalties. Indeed, as labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan has written, "An employer who didn't break the law would have to be what economists call an `irrational firm.'" A study conducted by Harvard Law professor Paul Weiler found that one in 20 union supporters were fired during election campaigns, while the AFL-CIO puts the figure at closer to one in eight. The fact that public-sector unionization has grown in recent years, while private-sector union representation has plummeted, can surely be explained in part by the fact that public employers don't fire union organizers but private employers commonly do.

Civil rights laws provide far more potent penalties for employment discrimination than labor laws do. Under 1991 amendments to the Civil Rights Act, women and people of color can sue not only for back pay but also for compensatory and punitive damages up to $300,000. Plaintiffs are now provided access to jury trials; when plaintiffs prevail, defendants are liable for up to double the hourly rate for plaintiffs' legal fees. Following adoption of the 1991 amendments, the number of employment discrimination cases filed in federal court more than doubled. In 1997, according to Jury Verdict Research, the median jury award in employment bias and sexual harassment cases was $250,000.

Administration of civil rights laws through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has historically been somewhat cumbersome, but an increased use of mediation and expanded staffing has permitted the organization to cut its backlog of cases by more than one-half. Moreover, Title VII remedies for unlawful discharge of unionizing workers are likely to be an even more effective deterrent than they have been against racial and gender discrimination because labor unions can use some of their $5 billion in annual income to support plaintiffs, while most women and people of color must rely on contingency lawyers.

Why not just amend the labor laws to increase penalties? Here's where the political advantage of the civil rights approach enters in. So long as the right to organize is treated as an issue of raw interests rather than one of fundamental human rights or moral values--as part of labor law rather than civil rights law--reform is unlikely to occur. For the past quarter-century, labor has found itself in a political box: In order for labor law to be reformed, labor must grow more powerful; but in order for labor to become more powerful, the labor laws need to be reformed.

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