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Contesting Employer Abuse: Workers' Use of the National Labor Relations Act


Economic restructuring and the de-facto deregulation of the labor market has left contemporary workers vulnerable to employer abuse. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—once considered the cornerstone of the US labor relations regime—has received much of the blame by labor activists and scholars. While this New Deal era law initially provided for the rights of workers to strike, organize and bargain collectively, it has proven to be all but toothless in the face of employers who wish to avoid unionization. Amidst (failed) calls for reform, some unions now avoid the law altogether, and have sought alternative means to pressure employers into agreements.

In light of these developments, it is surprising that some workers, along with the help of non-union organizations, have been drawing on the law not in order to unionize, but to further their interests in the workplace by collectively making demands on their employers. They have done so by drawing on an oft-overlooked provision of Section 7, which grants workers the right to concerted activity, not only for the purposes of unionization, but for their own "mutual aid or protection." Employer interference in the exercise of such rights constitutes a violation under Section 8 of the law. Thus, if an employer retaliates against workers who have acted concertedly, they can file a claim under the NLRA, and receive the standard remedies of reinstatement to their job, and backwages, or the wages they would have been paid had they not been illegally fired.

This provision has been in the law since its passage, yet it has often been interpreted in the context of unions—as protecting the activities that are necessary for workers to organize into unions and collectively bargain. However, in the wake of deunionization, some community-based organizations, or worker centers seem to be using the provision to help those workers who have long been left out of unions—immigrant workers, and especially those in the low-wage, service-sector jobs. Thus, the very law that has been viewed as "ossified" by the labor movement is being given new life by workers and new forms of worker organizations. Despite increasing attention given to this phenomenon, we know little about the conditions under which workers use the law. What motivates them to act collectively, and how do they come to make claims under the law?

In order to address this question, I have submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to obtain all the unfair labor practice case filed between the years 1985 and 2015. These cases will include those that are settled at the Regional level, along with those that go on to be heard by an Administrative Law Judge or by the Board itself. They will include cases filed by non-unionized workers, as well as those filed by the non-unionized workers. Scholars have addressed the latter group’s use of the law (see McCammon 2003; McCammon and Kane 2004), yet these studies only included cases filed by unions, rather than individual workers, and only focused on the small set of cases that are heard by the Board. This study will expand significantly on these former works by including cases that are settled within regional offices (by far the vast majority of Board activity), and those that are filed by workers are who are unaffiliated with a union, and thus are using the law to different ends. While it is the latter group's use of the law that motivates this study, having cases filed by both will allow me to compare their use of the law over time.

This project will contribute to our understanding of how rights can be formed, not only through the passage of new legislation but also through the re-articulation of a law's purposes. How and why does a law long thought to mean one thing come to mean another? And what are the structural antecedents of how vulnerable groups come to interpret and change the law? Has it happened in opposition to unions? Or in conjunction with them as they seek new ways to organize?

The goal for the spring semester will be to collect information on the population of unfair labor practices for the years 1985-2010 (or some sample of those cases, depending on how many there are). Students will use the lists of cases yielded by the FOIA process to locate each case on LexisNexis Academic. They will reach the details of each case and code them for basic characteristics using Microsoft Excel—industry, firm size, the nature of the grievances that led workers to act together, the actions taken by employers, the number and type of workers involved, the mention of any organizations such as worker centers, etc. At least two students will code each case, and I will check data input to ensure intercoder reliability. They will also help with light data analysis. Students will thus gain familiarity with several stages of the research process—basic data collection using a prominent legal database, coding, and cleaning, as well as the beginning stages of analysis, such as examining variable distributions and descriptive statistics.

The specific tasks this project:
• Attend meetings as needed.
• Complete PEERRS Certification.
• Respond to email within 24 hours
• Make every effort to input accurate and high quality data, following instructions.
• When in doubt about how to code something, ask for help.
• Communicate openly about any problems that come up during the semester integrating this research project with the rest of your life (e.g. illnesses, job interviews, etc.).
• Submit Progress Reports as requested

• Interest in sociology, particularly organizations, law, social movements, and labor
• Strong verbal and written communication skills
• Attention to detail
• Ability to respond productively to constructive feedback
• Ability to work well in a team setting
• Strong analytical skills

This project will provide you with an opportunity to become familiar with the research process, and especially the earlier stages of data collection, coding and analysis. You will experience the ins- and outs- of research, including all of the choices that have to be made and the establishment and refinement of coding parameters. Additionally, this project entails many aspects of qualitative work (careful reading, and interpretation of text, coding), while also resulting in data that will be used in statistical analysis. It thus will provide some insight into both qualitative and quantitative research. Those interested in labor, the law, and social movements, will become very familiar with a certain type of legal claim—one that is central to US labor law. To get the most from this experience, you should feel free to discuss the research process with me, make suggestions to improve the coding process, ask questions about labor law, share interesting cases with each other, etc. Research goes best when it is done collaboratively, and the project will be strengthened to the extent that you feel comfortable asking questions, and making suggestions.

Send an email to Include i) a brief statement about why you’re interested in this SURO position (in the body of the email is fine), and ii) your resume (as a PDF or a Word Doc attachment). Feel free to email any questions about the position as well.

• Supervising Faculty Members: Sandra Levitsky

• Graduate Student Contact: Jessica Garrick (

• Average hours of work per week: 6-12 (depends on whether students enroll for 2 or 3 credits)
• Number of credits: students may select to enroll in 2 or 3 credits of SOC 394.
• Number of positions available: 4