Thinking about forming a union with your colleagues?

Buck up.

According to a new report, you’ll likely have to deal with your employer’s antiunion tactics — which might break the law and can cost your employer hundreds of thousands of dollars in so-called labor consultant fees.

Employers were accused of illegally interfering with union campaigns in nearly half of all federally supervised union elections in 2016 and 2017, according to the report from the Economic Policy Institute. For the report, the D.C.-based nonprofit, which seeks “to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions” — analyzed “unfair labor practice” charges filed with the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

In one-third of the roughly 3,600 union elections in those two years, employers were accused of violating labor law by threatening or retaliating against workers who supported a union. In at least one-fifth of those elections, employers were accused of firing workers for supporting a union.

The report offers a window into why it’s so hard for workers who want to form a union — an urgent question as union membership has declined, despite growing public support for organized labor.

The report, which builds off a similar 2009 report by Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, makes its case plain: Workers seeking to unionize take on enormous risk — at worst, they could lose their jobs — and federal law is not powerful enough to protect them. It’s a major hurdle in organizing low-wage workers. There is a federal bill, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which could significantly strengthen protections for workers seeking to organize, but it’s currently stalled in the House despite its 218 cosponsors.

The complaints analyzed by the report are allegations and not findings by the NLRB. But, the report’s authors said it was the most accurate measure of “employer opposition” because investigations typically take a long time and during that period it is not unusual for workers to withdraw their complaints if, say, a worker moves or a union election is successful.

While these kinds of employer actions have historically flown under the radar, they’ve been making their way into the cultural consciousness, as popular media like the Netflix documentary American Factory and the network TV show Superstore depict “union busting” activity and as younger, more social-media-savvy workers start to organize.

Last month, not long after the New York Times reported that Google had hired antiunion consultants, four ex-Google employees filed an unfair labor practice complaint, alleging they were illegally fired for organizing. And this month, journalists mocked antiunion campaigns at NBC News and Hearst, pointing out how antiunion talking points were being dressed up in millennial branding.

Annually, employers spend nearly $340 million on antiunion consultants, known colloquially as union busters, according to the report, which analyzed publicly available reports. Consultants report charging $350 or more per hour and day rates that start at $2,500.

North Philly’s Einstein Medical Center, which the nurses union PASNAP organized in 2016, spent $1.1 million on union avoidance from 2014 to 2017, the report said. Einstein officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Here’s a look at how local employers have responded when their employees expressed interest in unionizing:

  • In 2018, during a graduate-student union drive, Penn State suggested that international students might lose their visas and have to leave the country if they ever went on strike. (Grad students ultimately voted no on the union.)
  • At least six Philly parking-lot attendants were fired in 2018 after supporting a bid to unionize with 32BJ SEIU. They got their jobs back a month after The Inquirer reported on the firings, which also led to the city passing a law against unjust firings for parking-lot workers. The union campaign is still ongoing.
  • This fall, the union backing WHYY workers filed an unfair labor practice alleging that the public media station had illegally threatened workers’ annual cost-of-living raises during educational meetings about a potential union. WHYY spokesperson Art Ellis said WHYY did not violate labor law. WHYY workers ultimately voted 70-1 for union representation.
  • This summer, at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, nurses said nearly a dozen “union busters” were at the hospital round the clock, identifying themselves as “HR” and pulling nurses off the job and into meetings to explain why they shouldn’t vote for the union. They passed out fliers saying that one pro-union nurse was being paid by the union, which the nurse and union PASNAP say is not true. “It was just a disgrace," said Lynn McCarthy, a 59-year-old labor and delivery nurse. She and her colleagues were also furious to see that the hospital was spending so much money on these consultants. A St. Mary official said they complied with the NLRB’s guidelines and best practices, and that it was their "duty to ensure our colleagues fully understood all aspects of joining a union so they could vote from an informed position.” In August, the nurses voted to unionize with PASNAP.

Below, see Einstein Medical Center’s 2017 filing with the Department of Labor that lists its labor consultant expenses: