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Union-Busting Is Rampant. Here’s How to Fight Back.

Since the pandemic, your news feed has likely been filled with content about labor organizing: unions, strikes, and workers’ rights. We haven’t seen this level of coverage since the stomping days of AFL-CIO in the ’80s. Whether it’s Starbucks, Amazon, REI, or graduate students, forgotten laborers are rebelling, demanding health and safety measures (especially because we’ve deemed them “essential workers”). A majority of Americans support this fight against big business: 71% support labor unions, the highest proportion since 1965.

Unfortunately, right now 90% of these laborers fighting for union recognition will fail when faced with employer resistance. For the past half-century, union opponents have steadily chipped away at the rules protecting workers’ rights—in courts, in laws, and in our American culture. We’ve reached the point where there are many barriers to winning a union election. Even though the National Labor Relations Board changed a landmark rule to protect union rights in August 2023, organizing rights are not fully protected and can be changed on the whim of the administration in power. 

Rest assured, there’s a better way. It’s time for progressives to launch a push for something called card check elections. 

To understand both the problem and the solution, we first need a little union history. After the great age of union agitation in the 1920s and 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as part of his New Deal reforms, passed two urgently needed laws: the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which protected workers to a degree never previously seen. Among other safeguards, these laws outlined the rules for unionizing and bargaining with employers without fear of retaliation. These acts helped usher in a golden age of American unions. 

However, over the last 80 years, conservative movements like the Tea Party and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have—bit by bit, regulation by regulation, and court case by court case—managed to weaken or dismantle many of these protections.

That’s not to say collective bargaining doesn’t exist. It does, as we’ve seen with the recently announced labor deal with the United Auto Workers, which established substantial pay increases and improved working conditions. But as the right-leaning federal government (yes, even Democratic administrations have been less-than-friendly to unions for decades now) scorches our current path to unionizing, it is becoming easier for employers to legally block workers’ attempts to protect their rights. 

The $340 million anti-union industry is stomping all over our forgotten laborers. (Don’t forget that someone cut down the trees that provided shade for striking SAG-AFTRA workers in last summer’s heat.) According to MIT professor Thomas Kochan, less than 10% of workers’ efforts to unionize succeed when employers resist. 

In addition to the union process being extremely friendly to business, it is long and arduous. Right now, union organizers must get the support of 30% of a business’s employees just to file a petition asking to hold an election to unionize. Once that’s filed, the employer is notified and has the option to accept the union flat out, without waiting for the vote. (Once in a blue moon that does happen, such as in the case of Major League Baseball.

In most cases, the employer declines. If they make it to the voting stage, union organizers and employers negotiate to establish the rules of the union election—covering logistics such as the time and place of the election. Then, union organizers must persuade a majority of eligible workers to vote in favor of a union. To block unions, employers deploy aggressive tools like anti-union propaganda, threats of termination, increased employee monitoring, and reduced hours to remove benefits eligibility. All this makes it nearly impossible for workers to fight for and win unions—and often leaves employees in the crappy position they were in before.

But there’s another way. 

In 2008, Senator Ted Kennedy introduced the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have allowed the NLRB to certify a union without employer approval and an official election. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party did not make that bill a priority at the time. But it offers an opportunity we can organize around and pressure lawmakers into passing now: “card check” unionizing. 

The two-step card check process is simple and efficient, making it vastly easier for workers to unionize. First, more than 50% of employees would need to sign “authorization cards” in favor of a union. Once that happens, union organizers could file paperwork to establish the union. 

It’s that simple. No employer recognition would be required, and there would be less time and money spent on campaigning for the union, not to mention less red tape. This process would help everyone, from the Starbucks barista to the Amazon warehouse employee to the overworked graduate student. And that’s important. Workers don’t organize a union for fun; they know they’re risking their jobs and security, and do so only when they really need one—because of unsafe working conditions, unfair labor practices, and low wages and benefits. Card check would make organizing collectively far more achievable, and on a schedule that could actually deliver timely relief. 

It’s true, though, that with the card check method, employees’ votes would be public, which some worry would lead to more employer coercion and retaliation. It’s also possible that without highly regulated federal processes where the government facilitates the election, the burden of organizing will be placed on the employees—especially in large companies.

These are the kinds of objections that organizers and policymakers can figure out solutions to as they go. We needn’t remove the current union organizing process, which has worked for some groups. But if we want to empower all workers in all companies, the card check method is one new tool we can use to get past the conservative dismantling of employee protections. Indeed, the card check method is effective in promoting unionizing efforts across levels of government, both federally (as we see in Sweden) and at local levels (such as in Quebec and British Columbia). 

The card check method has made its way around the U.S. legislative branch, having been introduced in five different Congressional sessions. We can urge our representatives to re-introduce the bill in Congress and work with AFL-CIO to make the card check method a suitable reality for our laborers. 

So let’s learn from strikers; let’s organize. Progressives have forced the Democrats to champion such issues as student loan debt cancellation and universal health care. We can further organize around protecting the long-term health of our employees that looks beyond 2024. Let’s bring our union rates back up. Let’s protect employees. Let’s take the power back from corporate greed and show lawmakers who have the real power in this country: the everyday worker.


Hannah L. McKinney is the project director of the People, Organizations, and Power Lab at Boston University, which uses experimental methods to research how policies and practices can address longstanding race and gender inequalities in elite organizations. She is also a research affiliate at The People Lab at Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, Hannah served as program director for the Antiracist Tech Initiative at BU’s Center for Antiracist Research. Her scholarly work has been featured in The Boston Globe, the American Journal of Health Promotion, and at the Academy of Management’s annual meeting.
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Anusha Rahman is a researcher at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, in the People, Organizations, and Power (POP) Lab. Her past research expertise includes adolescent mental health, sexual violence prevention and response, and digital health. She is pursuing graduate education in social impact.
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