Scare Tactic Recycled: Unionizing Kills Jobs

Isaiah J. Poole

Anti-labor forces this week are reprising an old argument about the Employee Free Choice Act: Making it easier for employees to join unions will cost employees their jobs.

The latest entry in this fusillade of propaganda comes from something called the Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs—an alliance that happens to include that bastion of “Main Street,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The author, Anne Layne-Farrar of the consulting firm LECG, writes that “if EFCA passed today and resulted in an increase in unionization from the current rate of about 12% to 15% … unemployment a year from now would rise by 1.5 million, to 10.4 million.”

The report relies on conservative zero-sum logic. If you pay workers higher wages, as Layne-Farrar concedes will happen as unionization increases, employers will respond by displacing workers from the labor force. The author concludes this even though, on page 13 of her report, she also writes, “the literature offers conflicting results with respect to the impact of union density on inflation, employment and unemployment.”

Nonetheless, Layne-Farrar won’t let conflicting data get in the way of a good right-wing trope. So she wades into Canadian labor data from the 1980s and 1990s, where provinces have used both the card-check system sought in EFCA and the secret ballot that EFCA opponents say they support. She flatly concludes that the provinces where card-check campaigns successfully increased union membership saw higher unemployment.

Economics and statistics students, repeat after me: Correlation is not causation.

There is no evidence in her statistical romp through Canada of any analysis of disparate economic conditions across the provinces, or disparate mixes of types of industries, that would explain rises or falls in unemployment. Without that, an assessment of the impact of the effect of unionization on employment is meaningless.

We do know, however, one way in which unionization costs jobs: Employers firing workers who attempt to lead unionization campaigns.

That’s illegal, but that has not stopped the number of union organizers who lost their jobs from increasing since 2000, according to a study released this week by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “The likelihood that a pro-union worker would be fired in a union-election campaign has jumped sharply—to about 1 in every 52 pro-union workers,” the study said.

That estimate is drawn from National Labor Relations Board data on “discriminatory discharges.” As the report notes:

While the NLRA makes it illegal for employers to fire workers involved in union-organizing campaigns, the penalties associated with “discriminatory discharges” are small: back pay for illegally fired workers minus any earnings that workers had after they were fired. Given these small penalties for illegal firings, the NLRA, in practice, has given employers a powerful anti-union strategy: fire one or more prominent pro-union employees—typically those most involved in organizing the union—with the hope of disrupting the internal workings of the union’s campaign, while intimidating the rest of the potential bargaining unit in advance of the NLRB-supervised election.

Here’s the real battle. On one side is real workers on Main Street who are being fired for leading an effort to organize a union, and the millions of other workers who are being denied a chance to decide on their own whether they want the rights that a union would grant them. On the other side, employers who are making the usual threats that if they are compelled to bargain with employees over the terms of their employment, they will pack up their investment capital and take it elsewhere.

Many of these employers have proven their bad faith by bullying employees, and only now are they likely to be called into account now that the Bush Labor Department’s wide, bend-over-for-business stance is being wiped aside. You can understand that they would be mad that their free ride on the backs of workers is coming close to an end, and so we need to recognize “studies” like the Layne-Farrar work for what they are—the angry lashing-out of a petulant business community whose anti-union toys are about to be taken away.

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