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Is it Non-Credible to be Pro-Union?

Kate Bronfenbrenner is the director of labor research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. This week, she released a new study entitled "No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing." In it, Bronfenbrenner examined 1,004 randomly sampled NLRB certification elections that took place between January 1, 1999 and December 31, 2003 and surveyed participants in 562 of the campaigns. Her results are troubling, but not surprising.

Employers threatened to close the plant in 57% of elections, discharged workers in 34%, and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47% of elections. Workers were forced to attend anti-union one-on-one sessions with a supervisor at least weekly in two-thirds of elections. In 63% of elections employers used supervisor one-on-one meetings to interrogate workers about who they or other workers supported, and in 54% used such sessions to threaten workers.

Nasty stuff, but hardly revelatory. Which makes this New York Times article on Bronfenbrenner's research all the weirder. It seems half-interested in quoting her study and half-interested in saying things like Bronfenbrenner "has often been criticized by business groups for her pro-union positions." Elsewhere, it quotes a member of the Chamber of Commerce saying, “Kate’s long been allied with the union movement and has issued studies in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act the last few years. She is certainly not an objective source.”

But what does that have to do with anything? This is a study. Either the data sets are sound or they are not sound. Either the elections were randomly chosen or they were not randomly chosen. Either the facts are correct or they are wrong. This is peer-reviewed work. It relied on information in the public domain. It can be checked. If the Times thinks Bronfenbrenner study is wrong, then they should either debunk it or not report on it. If the Chamber has a good argument against the data, then that should be reported. But letting members of the Chamber fling some mud in the general direction of Bronfenbrenner's credibility doesn't help anything. It's not as if they're "objective sources" either.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 20, 2009; 5:20 PM ET
Categories:  Unions  
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Is it peer reviewed? What journal?

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | May 20, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

No it's not peer-reviewed. It was published by the Economic Policy Institute whose founder and current board member is Ezra's former colleague from the American Prospect - Bob Kuttner. What Ezra fails to mention is that the EPI is a mouthpiece for union interests - as a 2007 post from points out:

"The funding for the “Institute” is a who’s who of union largesse:

* $150,000 from the AFL-CIO, according to its most recent financial disclosure to the Department of Labor

* As The Wall Street Journal noted in October, “The Economic Policy Institute received $100,000 from the SEIU and $40,000 from the UFCW in 2005” – UFCW’s new financial figures from last week show another $48,000 for 2006

* $150,000 from the National Education Association for its 2006 fiscal year

* An eye-popping $550,000 from the American Federation of Teachers in 2005, plus another $160,000 in 2006

A quick look at the organization’s board of directors is even more telling. Gerald McEntee, the well-paid boss of AFSCME, is the chairman of the board. Here are some of the members of the labor front’s illustrious board:

* Machinists president Thomas Buffenbarger
* CWA president Larry Cohen
* Steelworkers president Leo Gerard
* UAW president Ron Gettelfinger
* AFT president Ed McElroy
* AFL-CIO number-two Richard “I Plead the Fifth” Trumka
* UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor
* SEIU president Andy Stern

So to answer Ezra's original question, research published by EPI is about as credible on the topic of labor issues, as the ExxonMobil-fronted policy think tanks that deny climate change exists.

Posted by: APThyssen | May 20, 2009 7:36 PM | Report abuse

Are anti-union studies funded by anti-union private foundation more credible?

Who funded the study has little to do with how credible it is.

Posted by: harold3 | May 20, 2009 11:39 PM | Report abuse

Spot on. This seems to be a habit of anti-Employee Free Choice groups. Ari Rabin Havt at Media Matters wrote this to the Heritage Foundation today:

"First, writing "Read the bill" over and over again does not constitute an argument or contradict our claims in any way. We did read the bill and reached conclusions based on the facts. "

But on the Bronfenbrenner study, I have a nomination for Chart of the Day:

Posted by: michaelwhitney | May 21, 2009 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Why should we be arguing over the tactics of union suppression? If you want to clarify substantive issues, maybe you should address what sort of consequences the presence of unions have had on the economy, as that might offer some insight into the consequences of their abolition.

The techniques employers use to subvert elections are beside the point; that employers exert any influence over that election process is like letting the Israelis run Palestinian elections: if that doesn't break the rules, the rules aren't worth spit. The sad truth is that, by and large, employers will cut wages to increase their profits, and then wonder why nobody's buying their goods. If you live in a small town, you understand that employees and customers are the same people, but corporate management understands operating statements, but not their place in the community.

It may be that unionization makes for better corporate citizens. Certainly it requires major issues to be subjected to debate, rather than automatically decided to the detriment of labor.

There are much more fundamental issues to talk about than the finger-pointing that goes on between the Chamber of Commerce and unions. The degree of arm-twisting that takes place around organization elections is irrelevant; the fact that arm-twisting takes place at all is objectionable. If businesses are prepared to threaten to offshore jobs, maybe we should take steps to make it more expensive for them to do so than to stay here.

By the way, Thyssen, attacking the EPI isn't attacking the study. If you want to discredit a study, you have to impeach the study itself, not just the organization that did the work. What's wrong with the study result? Do you think only 25% of employers threatened to fire everybody if employees organized? Would 25% of the time be acceptable to you? What amount of threat do you think would be just right? If you think cheaper labor is the Holy Grail of business, you mistake your own interests. The whole middle class lifestyle our grandparents enjoyed was a product of unionization.

This story gets a whole lot more interesting if you stop accepting the Chamber of Commerce diatribes as fact, and do the homework on what unionization has contributed to our history.

Posted by: lonquest | May 21, 2009 12:22 AM | Report abuse

The reason we have peer review is to ensure that we, the laymen, can have a reasonable amount of assurance that the methods of the study were valid. From an academic POV, it's "cheating" to have a think tank that both pays for the research and publishes it.

The reason I loath the whole right-wing think tank infrastructure is because they serve more as PR firms promoting their "findings" in the form of press releases than the research institutes they claim to be. Bronfenbrenner and the EPI are trying to play that game as well, and when you do, it's going to be on right-wing terms: a fight of PR flacks.

There's only one valid critique of this study: it's not peer reviewed. It doesn't matter whether it's from EPI or Cato-- it's PR material masquerading as research.

Posted by: tyromania | May 21, 2009 12:40 AM | Report abuse

I agree with your post in principle. But in my limited experience doing labor law research, I actually found Bronfenbrenner's work to be misleading. When I was working on a policy paper for a union years ago, I dug into one of Bronfenbrenner's papers on U.S. employers moving jobs abroad. I'm very pro-union and support much of labor's agenda but I found her work to be highly misleading from the perspective of someone who just wanted an honest evaluation of data. It seemed to me that she had an answer that she manipulated the data to support. That's just one person looking at one paper but it stuck with me so I wouldn't necessarily be surprised to hear that the author of this article found other people who sincerely had similar feelings.

Posted by: progressivejoe | May 21, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

According to the NYTime article, the paper was peer reviewed, so why all the anti-union anti-Bronfenbrenner comments?

The paper was peer reviewed. If you want to find fault in her material, then find fault in the facts presented, in the analysis conducted, in the reviews conducted by her peers.

Sure, reports like this can become "PR" as one commentor pointed out, but what "PR" is in this report? That workers are fired when they want to organize a union? How is that any kind of public relations ploy? It's true. That's why the NLRB hears cases of wrongful termination and lots of those wrongfully terminated are given their jobs back and some of their back pay (because anything they earned during the years it takes to win the case is deducted from the penalty the employer has to pay).

Employers hold all the power. They intimidate, they fire, they even move people to other branches or stores (where multiple offices exist) and they sit you down and tell you what horrible things will come if you join a union. Bosses get to do all this stuff, and workers have to hope, they aren't the ones screwed in the end.

This report only lends numbers to the reality we already know, like Mr. Klein has point out "Nasty stuff, but hardly revelatory." True Ezra, it's not like we all didn't already know this, we do.

Posted by: Bendygirl | May 22, 2009 7:59 AM | Report abuse

Testing comments.

Posted by: Bob Greiner | May 22, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Testing unregistered comment.

Posted by: Bob Greiner | May 22, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Testing comment w/noscript

Posted by: Bob Greiner | May 22, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Testing comments.

Posted by: Bob_Greiner | May 22, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Bendygirl - she claims it is "reviewed by peers", which could mean they reviewed it and thought it was crap. It is only peer reviewed in the standard sense if it is published in an actual journal. There is no mention of that in the article or by the EPI.

It could still be fine work, but for those of us without the time to read every study that comes out, actual peer review is a good substitute.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | May 22, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Ezra is way off base here. Of course it is relevant to reveal what the pre-existing position of the person presenting the data is. This is where selective data is really in question. Why even use the 1004 cases from the NLRB as the basis for the investigation? The percentages are basically meaningless, as the 1004 are not a random sample of US corporations. The random sample was FROM the 1004, the 1004 was not the random sample. It's pitiful that the blogger here ignores this basic fact with his pro-union blindness.

The biggest gap in all of this that can be attributed to authorial bias is the fact that she ignores the negative effects for non union members and the industries they enter. Many businesses would disappear if unionized. Maybe it's a good thing if employers let people know that before they go to the great expense of forming a union.

A better solution than unions is employee stock ownership plans. It aligns interests much more cleanly.

Posted by: mmcknight5 | May 25, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

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