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Fear, Conflict, and Union Organizing

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[Excerpt] Workers' fears—of job loss, of strikes, of management retaliation—are well-documented obstacles to successful union organizing. Exploiting these fears is at the heart of employers' union-avoidance strategies. Unorganized workers are well aware that management opposition creates real and potential risks in organizing. Not so well documented is the effect of conflict generated during the organizing process. Conflict is distinct from fear because the adversarial relationship itself has an impact on undecided workers. Management and their consultants can take actions that polarize the workplace and then transfer blame to "outside" union organizers and inside "troublemakers." We believe that conflict is at least as important as fear in arousing anti-union sentiments, especially in organizing campaigns among professional, technical, and office workers. Our research indicates that understanding and addressing the issue of conflict is essential for success among these workers. Without more attention to its influence, by default, private-sector organizing may well appeal to only those workers with little to lose. The role of fear and conflict in employers' union-avoidance campaigns will first be explored with the aid of several cases;' we will distinguish between fear and conflict while demonstrating their entanglement. Next, we will explore in detail the campaign by the Communications Workers of America to organize computer technicians employed by AT&T's NCR subsidiary. We will present survey data based on interviews with 320 of these technicians, which enable us to evaluate their attitudes toward unionization. The data along with field experience indicate that aversion to conflict provides a significant explanation for hesitancy to organize among workers who are otherwise favorably disposed toward unions. Finally, we will discuss strategies to overcome fear and conflict and argue that the extent to which workers build their own organizations is directly related to the workers' likely success.

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unions; labor movement; organizing; worker rights; United States; anti-unionism


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Required Publisher Statement: Reprinted with permission of Cornell University.

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