Why a quarter of workplace bullying targets don’t trust their unions to help

mobbing in the workplace

“If you’re prone to magical thinking, you might believe all it takes to combat bullying (mistreatment by the employer or its agent, managers) is the collective effort by concerned coworkers who witness the events. Yes, in your dreams you see the heroic target in the boss’s threshold backed by throngs of agitated and supportive peers,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). “In reality, chances are better that only a breeze will be behind our hero at the door when left to fight alone.” Coworkers don’t intervene, according to the 2008 WBI Coworker Study. They fear they’ll be the next target, be the only supporter, ruin the fight, or be pushed away by the target.

Without the masses of disgusted coworkers behind a target, who’s left to help balance the power with employers? Unions. In a 2011 poll, the WBI asked workplace bullying targets what role, if any, they saw for unions in addressing workplace bullying.

Nearly three-quarters of targets polled believe unions have a positive role to play, and almost a quarter of those polled want to have the option to join a union.

But 24 percent of bullied targets do not trust their unions any more than their employers. Based on their years of working with targets, WBI guesses the distrust is from people who’ve likely asked their unions for help with bullying situations and been rebuffed. “Their unions did no more for them than HR. It is based on real experiences,” says WBI.

How unions could not play a central role in stopping workplace bullying
WBI offers four explanations as to why a union might not fight against workplace bullying:

  1. Unions officers like where they are. Union officers rise in the ranks based on their ability to fight win on behalf of union members. They don’t want interference from a new company policy or a future law.
  2. Unions are bureaucratic. In a union with a low service threshold, there’s less compassion and therefore less help for union members.
  3. Unions talk “partnership” with employers. Some unions want to get along with employers but ignore their members’ needs. This idea doesn’t necessarily point to corruption. “Unions have been forced into concessions by scheming, cash-rich employers for years. Employers threaten to shutter the business and move it offshore if pensions aren’t abandoned or health insurance co-pays aren’t increased. In other words, unions have been whipped into submission. Survival is the operating mode. Concern over quality of work life issues seems unimportant,” says WBI.
  4. Cases sometimes involve two union members. “Unions can be great when the bully is a non-member, typically a manager. But when bullying is member-on-member, most unions are paralyzed. They erroneously feel compelled to defend both the abusive and abused member. In reality, the responsibility is to represent, never to defend,” explains WBI.

None of these reasons excuse ineffective unions. They simply serve to explain the realities of modern unions and in some cases, what unions need to confront to regain their members’ trust.


  1. Gregg Morris

    Yep, absolutely true. My union, the Professional Staff Congress aka PSC. The former PSC Chapter Chair at my college, Hunter College, was a principal participant in bullying in my department (and so was her business partner, a deputy department chair, whom I’m considering nicknaming The Silent Assassin). A PSC grievance officer told me quite a while back that I should put up with the bullying, that I shouldn’t do anything “to upset my colleagues.” I kept hammering away about the former Chapter Chair’s participance and complicity with bullying with memos and listserv posts and my blog (blog.hunteword.com) until she was told to seek re-election. PSC officials. It was a kind of pyrrhic victory with her stepping aside but I would do it again. The PSC and bullying on my campus and in my department is worthy of at least one book chapter.

  2. Amy Nicastro Clark

    So true! I was Vice President of my Union whe I was asked to go over to Town Hall to resign or be fired for things I would not do even “if I had” the computer access to do then.

    We had an attorney representative who was pretty much useless

  3. toriiannbottomley

    Mine union and its legal team were worse than HR. They feigned empathy and support just to hear my story, see my evidence, and get a witness list. This was handed over to the opposition. I keep saying I just want to know how much I was worth, or how much money or what kind of perks did the union make off of throwing me under the bus. Union legal supposedly were preparing for my arbitration for 7 months (….$70K?) but did nothing. My lawyer first saw my personnel folder on the morning of the arbitration that never was when the opposing legal team handed it to them. For the books, the union could have written a check for 7 months of work, the lawyer deposits it and withdraws 35K and gives it to the union rep. Mind you this monopoly money is from union member dues. This is a hot topic and what may account for the clouded events of SCJ Scalia’s death. He was the swing vote in the Frederichs case which would make being in a union optional.

  4. Peter Myerscough

    If workplace bullying was a criminal offence, then we would see company’s change their ways.

  5. Janet

    Why am I not surprised. Money, money, money…squeeze every single human until they cant fight no more and just give up.

  6. Jill Penc

    both of my last CSEA union reps were friends of mine for 20 years..not that I was looking for any special treatment but..at the least …..fair treatment……although “they” appeared on my side it became clear that they were in cahoots with Human Resources…just a sinister game to them…over my 30 years of NYS service the CSEA was only there for me when I “didn’t” need them

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