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Labor Law Could Learn a Lot from the NFL

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Bill Belichick knows the cost of breaking the rules.

The coach of the New England Patriots was forced to cough up $500,000--about 12% of his annual salary--for spying on his opponents during the NFL's season opener. The league's punishment didn't stop there - the Patriots also had to pay a quarter-million dollar fine and give up at least one draft pick.

Discipline was swift and severe. All in all, the punishment was the NFL's biggest ever, and it surely sent a message to every team in the league.

The incident stands in stark contrast to another reported last week by the Las Vegas Sun involving Wal-Mart, the world's biggest employer.

The Bentonville behemoth was once again found guilty of unionbusting by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), this time in three Southern Nevada stores.

But whereas it took the NFL less than a week to punish the Patriots, it took the NLRB more than seven years to hand down its guilty verdict. To add insult to injury, Wal-Mart's punishment is pathetic: for breaking up its employees' organizing effort, the company had to pay just a few thousand dollars in lost wages to a former employee.

The laughable fine is a drop in the bucket for Wal-Mart, which posted profits of $11 billion in 2006.

Wal-Mart's hostility to unions is legendary - thanks to reports, movies, and even cartoons. But what's less known is what happens to folks who try to hold the retail giant accountable for its illegal actions.

In this most recent case, three Wal-Mart employees passed out fliers and talked to their coworkers about forming a union.

That alone was enough to set off Wal-Mart's anti-union squads in hot pursuit of the trail of the union. As the Sun reports:

"Management stepped in. The three employees were told to stop. They were questioned, threatened and insulted, according to later findings by the government. Wal-Mart stripped one worker of his union fliers and denied another a promotion."

In this case, like most others at the NLRB, the workers get caught up in a process that is beyond bureaucratic. If workers try to pursue charges with the agency, they become victim to an endless number of appeals that their employer - former or current - can use to their advantage. The result is that a verdict comes down long after it could ever make a difference in the lives of workers.

Despite mountains of evidence that Wal-Mart routinely breaks the law, there are no meaningful punishments to discourage companies from doing all that they can to prevent workers from forming unions. According to Professor Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon, our labor law system is "almost entirely toothless." He adds, "For workers there is no sense of justice. For employers, it's a rational business decision to break the law."

You can be sure that no NFL team will dare try spying on opponents for a long, long time - the league made certain of that.

Until our labor law system is reformed through critical policy prescriptions like the Employee Free Choice Act, anti-union companies can feel free to break the law and get away with it. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart's 1.3 million employees can only expect more of the same.