06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Study Destroys Union Intimidation Myth As Specter Considers "Compromise"

Even as Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has been wooing new Democratic Senator Arlen Specter over a "compromise" version of the Employee Free Choice Act, a new study shows that Big Business's fear-mongering over union intimidation is groundless.

A University of Illinois study (admittedly union-subsidized) looked at the way majority sign-up provisions that allow workers choice over how to form a union were applied in the public sector where they're allowed, as in Illinois. As Illinois Progress reported:

Big business and anti-labor legislators love to trot out the claim that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) effectively "strips workers" of a secret ballot election, thereby opening up the door for union intimidation. Of course, this is a gross distortion of the bill. Both forms of unionization -- majority sign-up and elections -- are currently allowed under federal labor law and would be preserved under EFCA. The bill simply gives workers the "choice," rather than their employer. Critics also conveniently ignore the evidence of rampant intimidation by employers during extended election campaigns.

But is there central contention even correct? Does card check lead to union coercion? The recent experience of Illinois workers suggests not in the slightest.

Since 2003, Illinois labor law has allowed public sector workers in municipal, county, state, and educational institutions to organize a union via a majority sign-up certification process. By submitting authorization cards, petitions, or any other evidence that demonstrates that a majority of the employees wish to bargain collectively with a union, the Illinois Labor Relations Board (ILRB) or the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (in the case of teachers) can certify a bargaining unit without requiring a full workplace election...

Bob Bruno, co-director of the University of Illinois-Chicago's Labor Education Program, got his hands on all of the case data for fiscal years 2003-2009. His findings are astonishing.

In the past six years, 21,197 public sector workers from a wide variety of industries have organized under the new guidelines, with the boards certifying 799 units. While just under 300 petitions were dismissed because the union failed to achieve majority support, literally zero petitions were thrown out because of labor coercion.

Meanwhile, the evidence about employer intimidation of workers trying to form a union is overwhelming. As the Campaign for America Future reports in its myth-busting brief (after shredding the bogus argument that the bill takes away the secret ballot):

Myth No. 2: The Employee Free Choice Act would expose workers to intimidation by unscrupulous union organizers

All reliable evidence suggests otherwise. Since the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, the NLRB has found 42 cases (or about one case every 2 years) involving intimidation and fraud in the collection of authorization cards. This contrasts with the epidemic of corporate lawlessness under the current system of union recognition in the United States. Every year for the past two decades, according to National Labor Relations Board data, over 20,000 workers have been awarded back pay because employers have interfered with their freedom to choose a union and bargain collectively. Workers are fired for choosing unions in one quarter of all organizing campaigns. In contrast with corporate scaremongering, the empirical evidence demonstrates that coercion is a problem when workers try to choose a union and bargain for better wages and benefits - employer coercion.

In fact, here's how such intimidation and coercion play out in workers' lives, as recounted in a United Steelworkers video a while ago:

And here's what Billy Mason, an Alcoa worker in Hampton, Virginia found when he and his co-workers tried to form a union to restore their declining real wages and lost benefits -- non-stop employer resistance and intimidation:

To reverse the decline in their wages and gain the freedom to bargain for a better future, Billy and his co-workers began forming a union with the United Steelworkers. But the company fought back with a deluge of misinformation and intimidation. At the beginning of each shift, the company held stand-up meetings bashing the workers' union.

As the election approached, Billy says the company also held sit-down meetings every other day where "the suit and tie people" forced their propaganda against the union on the workers. Although two-thirds of the workers signed cards authorizing the union as their bargaining agent, after two months of the campaign against their union, the workers lost the election.

Despite the loss, the workers continue to try to form a union, but the company stopped them from hand billing and interrogated workers. Billy's manager told him he was "going to destroy the company" by supporting the union. After the election, Billy was suspended without pay for two weeks. The union took his case to the National Labor Relations Board and Billy was awarded his back pay. Despite an atmosphere of fear, he continues to organize and fight for the right to bargain for a better future for his family and his coworkers:

"I believe the rights we have were fought for, people shed blood and people died, and I'm not going to let those rights be taken away.

Yet it's workers and union organizers who are being accused of intimidation, with only a relative handful of proven cases against the unions over the decades, compared to nearly 30,000 confirmed cases each year against businesses. Worse, it's that sort of glib right-wing myth-making about the Employee Free Choice Act that's driving the political fears of Senate moderates who won't support the bill as written. But if majority sign-up is scuttled in any "compromise" legislation, it's small wonder that union officials -- and the thousands of workers and allies lobbying for the legislation in an unprecedented grass-roots campaign -- would react fiercely against that prospect.

As Jill Cashen, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, told Bloomberg News: "Card-check is not negotiable for workers in the private sector."

In fact, while so many cartoonish "horror movie" caricatures of the legislation have been launched by right-wing smear merchants, perhaps supporters of the legislation deserve a chance to fight back with a cartoon of their own. So the Center for American Progress's Action Fund has created an animated video, "How Not to Join A Union." This one, though, has facts, not myths: