Economic Snapshot | Unions and Labor Standards

Employers can stall first union contract for years

Snapshot for May 20, 2009

Employers can stall first union contract for years

By Ross Eisenbrey

Polls show that tens of millions of American workers would like a union to represent them, but in a typical year, only 50,000 to 70,000 win representation through National Labor Relations Board-supervised elections.  Even if the employees succeed in making it through what Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner calls “the hoops of fire” of a hostile employer campaign, it can take years before a union ever obtains a collective bargaining agreement. Some never do. The reasons for this widespread failure include the absence of damage remedies such as cash penalties against employers who bargain in bad faith and the fact that employers have the legal right to permanently replace striking workers—effectively firing them if they go on strike.

Bronfenbrenner studied a representative sample of hundreds of NLRB representation elections conducted between 1999 and 2003 and found that many of the unions that won representation were never able to bargain a first contract.  As shown in the chart, a majority of organized units had no collective bargaining agreement one year after the election. Within two years, more than one-third still had no contract, and by three years that portion was still around 30%.

[Figure: Failure to obtain a first contract] 

The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. George Miller and Sen. Edward Kennedy, would end this problem by giving employees the right to seek help from a federal mediator and, eventually, to have an arbitration panel decide the terms of a first contract if the parties are unable to reach agreement without unreasonable delay.

This Snapshot was based on data in EPI’s Briefing Paper, No Holds Barred—The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing, which provides a comprehensive analysis of employer behavior in union representation elections.