Last March, 18 bakers at a Panera Bread franchise in southwest Michigan voted to join a labor union. Now, nearly a year later, they are still waiting for their employer, Bread of Life, to recognize their bargaining unit.
A combination of Bread of Life’s obstructionism and bureaucratic red tape has drawn out the unionization process, which should have been as simple as a group of workers exercising their legal right to organize.
The Panera bakers are not alone. Union membership is in decline in the United States, a trend that is often attributed to globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs. However, studies have found that employer interference has a profound impact on unionization rates.
Among the methods employers use to obstruct unionization are firing workers who lead organizing efforts, intimidating workers, forcing workers to attend meetings at which managers disparage the union and delaying the vote on unionization.
At Panera, workers complained that Bread of Life used many of these strategies against them.
Although 90 percent of the bakers signed cards saying they wanted a union, Bread of Life refused to recognize the union. Instead, it demanded a secret ballot election, its right under federal law.
Before the balloting, Bread of Life mandated meetings at which managers lectured and threatened workers, trying to intimidate them into voting against unionization.
Many companies strive to create a pervasive anti-union atmosphere to preempt union organizing efforts. In 1994, the final report of the government-initiated Dunlop Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations found that 79 percent of workers believed they might be fired for trying to form a union.
Their fears were well founded. Since the Dunlop Commission report, there has been a marked increase in anti-union activity, according to a study by John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, found that employers threatened to close plants in 57 percent of union elections and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent of union votes. Employers actually followed through on threats to fire organizers 34 percent of the time.
Bread of Life has not fired any of the Panera bakers in Michigan or closed any restaurants, but pro-union employees faced other forms of retaliation, including cut hours and lower evaluation scores, which are tied to bonuses.
Such retaliation is technically illegal, but the fines are so low that many employers view them as simply one more cost of doing business.
Particularly ineffectual are the penalties for illegally firing workers. If the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determines an employer illegally fired a worker for union activity, the employer must pay back wages – not double pay, not back wages and a fine, just back wages minus any income the worker earned elsewhere after the improper firing.
This means that even when workers successfully challenge firings, the companies aren’t sufficiently sanctioned to prevent them from doing the same thing again.
“Given these small penalties for illegal firings, the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act), in practice, has given employers a powerful anti-union strategy,” Schmitt and Zipperer found.
In addition to disrupting organizing campaigns and intimidating workers with firings, companies routinely use every roadblock they can find to delay unionization.
Bread of Life is currently refusing to bargain with the Panera bakers, claiming that their bargaining unit is too small. In November the regional NLRB found this refusal to be unlawful and ordered Bread of Life to bargain with the union.
The company continues to stall, however, and has the option of appealing the decision. Appeals can drag on for years, and employers often count on the slow and unwieldy NLRB process to avoid negotiating with unions.
Delays are especially effective for employers when there is high worker turnover, as there often is in low-wage jobs, because the workers who supported the union leave before recognition is achieved. Without health insurance, at least one pro-union Panera worker has already been forced to take another job.
Sociologist Claude Fischer calculated that over the last decade, Americans were nearly twice as likely to approve of labor unions as disapprove. This indicates that lack of support cannot explain falling unionization rates.
Instead, Schmitt and Zipperer found strong evidence that shrinking union membership is the result of employers actively subverting unionization efforts. They wrote: “since about 1980, employers—with substantial legal support and cover—have engaged in a systematic attack on unions, especially on union efforts to organize new workers.”
Posted February 25, 2013 at 5:41 pm, in Union Matters