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March 01, 2007

Which Side Are You On?

Megan and I have been through these woods before, but the question of card check essentially rests on the question of whether you think employers wield too much power in union elections, whether you believe union intimidation can match them, and whether you believe there are other measures capable of redress. So let's try it this way:

Things an Employer Can Do To Keep You From Joining A Union: Force you into captive meetings. Threaten to close your plant/store/site. Threaten to fire you. Actually fire you. Hire professional union busters. Give preferential treatment, either through scheduling or promotion, to employees willing to identify union supporters. Reduce the hours or inconveniently schedule suspected union supporters. Fire union supporters. Reassign you.

What Unions Can Do: Demand you join a union. Ask you to join a union. Threaten to screw you if you don't support the union and one is created.

Notice the imbalance? Either side, of course, could go way outside the law and begin beating the shit out of you, or actually shooting at you, but that's unlikely. Further, survey evidence shows that workers feel much more intimidation from employers than union, even during card check elections. The evidence of union intimidation simply isn't there.

The answer of individuals who have never before evinced any anxiety over the plight of organizers is that, fine, it's true that employers wield too much power, but the right to a secret vote is inviolate and the answer is to increase employer penalties and reform the NLRB elections process. This is a legitimate objection if and only if you're willing to actually advocate for that outcome. If you're only willing to mention it as a counter-argument to card check, it is simply a diversionary tactic.

All that said, I'd be perfectly happy with a grand compromise that fully leveled the NLRB process while preserving the secret ballot. But that compromise isn't in the offing. And given that employers have played with a stacked deck for far too long, I'm willing to push things in the other direction and walk it back if the outcomes are undesirable. But as it is, card check is a way to create more union members. Those arguing against card check, by and large, don't want this to happen. I do want this to happen. That's what the argument is actually over. Both sides, theoretically, could meet in the middle for reforms. But that's not what those claiming the middle are actually advocating. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported on a potential compromise today, and noted a Chamber of Commerce spokesman promising "the Chamber and other business groups would fight the [compromise] binding-arbitration portion of the bill just as hard as the card-check rule." In the end, this isn't about voting processes. Indeed, given how much both sides have at stake, and how much power employers naturally wield over employees, I'm skeptical fair votes are even possible. This is about unions vs. corporations. The only question is which side are you on?

March 1, 2007 in Labor | Permalink

Comments

I have no problem with unions as long as a person that doesn't wish to join is not prevented from working as in a right-to-work state. It's just as heinous to force workers one way as it is the other.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 1, 2007 9:13:34 AM

Interfering with freedom of association is more heinous than "forcing" union membership.

In non-RTW states, those who want to work in union shops but don't want to be represented by the union can embrace that favorite refrain of corporate apologists and find another job.

Posted by: tps12 | Mar 1, 2007 9:29:18 AM

Fred, God find me this massive number of workers who don't want to join a union or engage in collective bargaining. RTW is just another way of saying "shafting the workers". It more often results in a "right to be fired" than a "right to work".

Posted by: soullite | Mar 1, 2007 9:39:14 AM

Most anti-union articles that I have seen and heard are anecdotal, most pro-union articles have been backed up by court rulings. It makes a difference to me. I know it irks many of my contract labour friends that they have to pay union dues and receive few services but then it irks my union member friends that contract labour is used to bust the union. Most of the anecdotes boil down to the company setting the contract employee up to fail, and most of the court rulings boil down to the company setting an employee, union or otherwise, up to fail. On a fair playing field either option would work, but until management moves from "always taking things to court regardless of cost" to "negotiated settlements can work", than I have to side with card checkng.

Posted by: Hawise | Mar 1, 2007 9:47:43 AM

Ezra, that's not quite accurate. Companies in union campaigns are not known for slashing tires or writing threatening notes about peoples' families, both of which aren't exactly unusual from the union side. You're also, unless my Labour Relations professor was lying to me, exaggerating what companies are allowed to say. They can't threaten to close the plant if it unionises; they *can* say that the union can't keep the plant from closing, or necessarily win the workers higher wages, both of which are true. They can indeed force you into captive meetings . . . as long as it is during work hours and they are paying you to attend. They can also, you may not be aware, "force you into captive typing and filing" and many other dire activities.

I'm sure that companies do behave illegally during elections, (as do unions) but all of these other offenses are already illegal. Complaints about these being "civil penalties" are lunatic. *All* actions against corporations involve civil penalties. Are you planning to put Wal-Mart in jail?

There is considerable asymmetry in the kinds of pressure that are applied, and the threats of violence against individuals depending on how they vote are mostly on the union side. Yes, card check would probably increase unionisation. So would shooting people who oppose unions, but this is not a good reason to do it. I'm not interested in increasing or decreasing unionisation; I'm interested in finding out what workers want. Forcing them to reveal their votes to their coworkers is not a good way to do that.

Posted by: Jane Galt | Mar 1, 2007 9:55:46 AM

The corporations have all the leverage in any unionizing fight. The cardcheck bill still wouldn't level the playing field, but it's a start. I'm not quite sure how this bill could get past a veto, but it deserves a try. As far as people who don't want to join a union, tough. We all have to live with majority decisions we don't support.

Posted by: MaryT | Mar 1, 2007 9:58:56 AM

A friend, who is a full time student, attended a campus sponsored job fair yesterday to find a part-time job that would supplement his income while in school. Approaching BellSouth, he inquired about part-time jobs in their local call center. "Our contract with the union does not allow part-time jobs" was the response. Pardon me, but whatever you want to say about employers, the fact is that unions have a vested interest in preserving their members' jobs, at the expense of everyone else. It's just another vested interest guarding its turf. There is no nobility to the notion of union labor, just as there is no predominant movement on the part of employers to screw employees. This is all about power, not the interests of employees.

Posted by: Agricola | Mar 1, 2007 10:01:34 AM

Companies in union campaigns are not known for slashing tires or writing threatening notes about peoples' families, both of which aren't exactly unusual from the union side.

And the evidence for this. . .?

Ezra's point is not that threatening to close a factory that unionizes is somehow legal. The point here is that the company, if it chooses to make this (illegal, to be sure) threat, has far greater power to influence workers than a union does.

Let us assume that corporations and unions engage in the same amount of illegal activities to pressure workers to their side. Let us assume, even, that unions engage in more of this activity than corporations. In such a scenario, the corporation still has greater power to influence its workers' decisions regarding unionization.

At any rate, the idea that allowing card-check authorization of union representation will result in greater "union intimidation" is laughable. It's merely something that makes it a bit easier for employees to unionize, something that makes corporations so scared they are willing to employ unrealistic nightmare scenarios to oppose it.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 1, 2007 10:09:43 AM

Agricola,

If you friend only needs a part-time job to supplement his income while attending school full-time, perhaps he doesn't need a job as much as the primary breadwinner for a family of four. He can go work for McDonalds. If he's too good for that or something, he can just go back to his dorm or whatever and whine on his Myspace page about the unfairness of the world while listening to My Chemical Romance.

there is no predominant movement on the part of employers to screw employees.

You are, apparently, unfamiliar with the idea of "profit" and the easiest ways to increase it.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 1, 2007 10:14:13 AM

Actually, Jane Galt makes some compelling points, but only if you accept her assertions as facts. The truth is, that the laws heavily favor the corporations. Most states have "at-will" termination laws. Employers don't need a reason to fire you. When anyone even discusses supporting a union, they can be fired without reason even though the real reason was union support. Non-union companies here in Michigan have used plant closing rumors to stop unionizing drives. They don't have to say anything officially, shop floor rumors are more believable than management announcements. When the unions do appeal to labor boards, they usually lose. National and state labor boards are appointed by politicians who are rewarding their donors - corporate PACs.

Posted by: MaryT | Mar 1, 2007 10:22:10 AM

It's interesting that even with Mr. Klein noting that "Either side, of course, could go way outside the law," that some people still fail to grasp how many of the techniques on the employer list are legal, while slashing tires is not. As Stephen astutely notes, even if one restricted oneself to illegal acts by both sides, employers come out ahead. However, the fact that intimidation that is legal under current law is "countered" by invoking intimidation techniques that are patently illegal seems to bear out Mr. Klein's point that the anti-union side isn't actually interested in compromise or worker rights. Or have there been protests conducted by card check opponents against the weakening of the NLRB, and I've just missed them?

Posted by: mds | Mar 1, 2007 10:25:57 AM

Jane: You have one person in your comments saying someone slashed his bike tires, I'm not exactly sure it's a common tactic (or even true in his case). And, as you say, slashing tires is already illegal, etc.

Meanwhile: 30% of corporations actually fire union supporters during organizing campaigns. 49% threaten to close the work site. 51% promise preferential treatment to individuals who oppose the union or identify supporters. 82% hire unionbusting consultants (and what do you think they advise to do, if not the preceding actions?). 91% force one-on-one meetings with supervisors to "talk" folks out of unions.

So those are the numbers. They're all documented here (pdf). How many folks, exactly, would you say get their tires slashed?

Oh, and the problem with the penalties isn't that they're civil suits, it's that they're too low. It's a good business decision to pay $5,000 for firing a union supporter, as you well know.

And as for your last point, on your interest in finding out what workers want, this goes back to one of the points in my post: You've argued against card check to me many times, and posted against it as well. So far as I know, you've never uttered an unprompted word of concern about employer intimidation. That's fine, it may not be high on your list of worries. But nor is finding out what workers really want. As I've said before, if there really were some viable constituency to create a fair and honest NLRB elections scheme, I'd be for it. But there isn't. This is a fight between labor and corporations, and you, and, I, have, by our actions and writings, indeed chosen sides.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 1, 2007 10:29:43 AM

A Stephen notes, it should be pointed out that despite claims from Jane Galt and the corporate opposition to majority signup, there is very, very little evidence to back up their hysterical claims of tire-slashing and intimidation by prounion workers. (Ezra's already linked to data indicating that workers feel less intimidation in a majority signup process.)

For another example of how flimsy this claim is, read the testimony given by the antiunion workers who were presented at the House hearings by the National Right to Work Committee: http://www.nrtw.org/b/nr_596.php

The most they can complain about is that prounion people called them at home, knocked on their door, or tried to talk to them during a break at work. This is a long way from tire slashing, and presumably the Right to Work Committee worked hard to find the scariest example of union intimidation out there. These were the worst examples they could come up with!

Jane scoffs at whether allowing employers to require workers to hear their antiunion message is important, but that's willfully ignoring how unbalanced the current election process is. Unions are limited to calling people at home and knocking on doors, which is an incredibly slow, tedious, and inefficient way to get a message out. An election where one side is allowed unlimited access to voters and can require voters to listen to its message--while the other choice's access is severely limited--is inherently flawed.

Notice that corporations try to have it both ways on this issue. First they try to the waters by saying that "hey, unions have access, too. They can reach people at home."

Then, when prounion workers attempt to visiit coworkers at home, the corporations accuse the workers of trying to intimidate people! (See the Right to Work testimony above.)

Posted by: Brendan Sexton | Mar 1, 2007 10:35:30 AM

You're also, unless my Labour Relations professor was lying to me, exaggerating what companies are allowed to say. They can't threaten to close the plant if it unionises; they *can* say that the union can't keep the plant from closing, or necessarily win the workers higher wages, both of which are true.

LOL. I don't know if I should take this only a little seriously, or not at all. Literally true, yes, but so what? A manager or owner cannot say "If you form a union, we're closing this plant and moving our operations out of state." He or she can, however, say "Lovely little factory you've got here, it would be such a shame if it were to close next year for no reason at all. Or, um, if productivity suddenly failed to meet our goals [which, incidentally, may double due to the additional paperwork if you unionize.] Yeah, that's it."

Legally the distinction is important, of course. But in practical terms, owners may not be able to "threaten to close the plant," but do you really, honestly believe that they can't threaten to close the plant?

Posted by: Cyrus | Mar 1, 2007 10:39:53 AM

Agricola:

BellSouth entered into a contract with its employees, who presumably thought it was a good idea to have full-time jobs and voted to negotiate and approve a contract that made that work full-time. The employees would have been free to reject the contract if they were hungry to see more part-time jobs created for college kids. BellSouth's management also legally approved the contract.

Corporations make contracts with other entities all the time, and those contracts include terms that affect the nature of work for employees.

What if your friend had said: "I'd like a job in your call center, and I demand that you give me a brand new Apple iMac to manage my calls.

BellSouth could point out, I assume, that it's entered into a contract with HP (or whoever) to be its exclusive supplier of call center computers, and working with one of those computers is part of the job there.

Would you think that this is an example of an unjust power grab by HP (or whoever)? Coporations negotiate exclusive arrangements with each other every day, and free market conservatives don't seem to mind. But when employees negotiate some sort of terms, suddenly we're on the doorstep of totalitarianism.

Posted by: Brendan Sexton | Mar 1, 2007 10:50:01 AM

This is kind of a side issue but: the notion that secret ballots are an essential part of any democratic process is kind of silly. Both houses of Congress take votes without secret ballots, but this does not mean they are undemocratic. The Electoral College elects the President without secret ballots. The Iowa Caucus does not provide secret ballots to its participants. New England town meetings, where they still exist, do not use secret ballots. There is simply no shortage of examples of democratic decision making that do not feature secret ballots. I would also note that Federal and state elections in the US did not use a secret ballot until (roughly) 1884. Were the elections of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln therefore travesties of democracy?

Posted by: Rich C | Mar 1, 2007 11:28:19 AM

Stephen and Brendan,

"He can go work for McDonalds. If he's too good for that or something, he can just go back to his dorm or whatever and whine on his Myspace page about the unfairness of the world while listening to My Chemical Romance."

"BellSouth entered into a contract with its employees, who presumably thought it was a good idea to have full-time jobs and voted to negotiate and approve a contract that made that work full-time. The employees would have been free to reject the contract if they were hungry to see more part-time jobs created for college kids. BellSouth's management also legally approved the contract."

Great level of discourse. What if I told you he was a 28 year old vet with a family? Would that make his decision not to work at McDonalds or not whine on YourSpace any more believable. Sheesh......

And don't try to tell me that the management at BellSouth did not want part-timers, the union forced it on them.

Posted by: Agricola | Mar 1, 2007 12:13:01 PM

This is one of those non-issues. On one side you have people putting forth their case in, well, less than utterly forthright terms using slippery legal language and the force of money and power and on the other side, well, not much really.

The sad thing about unions is that the unions that flourished in the first half and through the middle of the previous century turned out to be so much like the corporate entities they were suppoedly insulating their workers from. I don't know what the solution to that is but I know what it is not. The solution is not busting unions.

Posted by: ice weasel | Mar 1, 2007 12:14:33 PM

What if I told you he was a 28 year old vet with a family?

Sorry that I assumed he was a 19-year-old college student. However, he still was looking for part-time work. I've been a 32-year-old with a family, going to school and working at Starbucks with 16-year-olds. You know, cleaning toilets, dealing with customers, emptying wastebaskets. I would have liked some other jobs, but it worked around my schedule and I happen to really, really like coffee.

If Starbucks hadn't worked out, I probably would have gone to UPS and slung boxes onto semi trucks. I've been a janitor, a night clerk for a hotel, a courier. So forgive me for not being very sad about your friend who can't have the exact job he wants because the SBC (AT&T now) union set it up so they only have full-time jobs. Cry me a river.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 1, 2007 12:29:11 PM

This is a legitimate objection if and only if you're willing to actually advocate for that outcome. If you're only willing to mention it as a counter-argument to card check, it is simply a diversionary tactic.

So does Megan advocate it or not? Megan?

The only question is which side are you on?

A bit of an exaggeration. I favor more union members and a secret ballot. Lots of people do, I suspect. The needed compromise may not be in the offing, but it's not clear card check is in the offing either, as long as the argument over secret ballots is allowed to derail it. If card check can pass for now, then that's improvement, but either way I think we see where we need to go. That business opposes binding arbitration in some particular compromise proposal doesn't show that a compromise on card check/snap secret ballot wouldn't still pass where card check alone will not.

Rich, our representatives have public ballots because they represent us and are accountable to us. Otherwise they would use secret ballots.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 1, 2007 12:32:03 PM

Oh, and the problem with the penalties isn't that they're civil suits, it's that they're too low.

So the solution to this is... to help union thugs take tire irons to union opponents.

A better solution: raise the penalties.

Posted by: A.S. | Mar 1, 2007 2:03:33 PM

Agricola:

(Seriously: no offense to your friend. He deserves credit for his service and I hope his family is well and the job search is successful.)

To continue my metaphor...if HP is charging BellSouth $500 per workstation, don't tell me that BellSouth wouldn't have preferred to pay $250 per workstation.

But it agreed to $500 per station through a process of negotiation, and agreed to those terms. Does that mean that HP "forced" a $500 cost "on them?"

Similarly, BellSouth agreed to terms with its workers about the how the work would be done through a process of negotiation, and agreed to those terms.

Insurance companies negotiate prices and terms with hospitals. Retailers negotiate prices and terms with wholesalers. Executives negotiate compensation and contract terms with boards of directors. Etc. Why is it in your eyes that union members suddenly "force" terms "on" their employer when they negotiate over the terms of their work?

Posted by: Brendan Sexton | Mar 1, 2007 2:08:18 PM

So the solution to this is... to help union thugs take tire irons to union opponents.

No, no, no. The solution is to help union thugs slash the tires of union opponents.

Really, y'all need to keep your unfounded anecdotal accusations consistent within each comment thread. . .

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 1, 2007 2:53:40 PM

The point about NLRB unfair labor practice findings is that the remedy for them is extremely limited - solely back wages. So, if Company X fires all of the labor organizers within its factory, the most onerous threat that it faces (if the employee follows through the years of legal wrangling) is to pay back wages, re-hire and re-run the election. There are no fines and no punitive damages. If a company simply applies a cost-benefit analysis (without concern for violating the law), it is almost always advantageous to fire all the organizers.

Posted by: Ephus | Mar 1, 2007 5:12:33 PM

What can unions do to encourage membership? How about beat you to a pulp? From Professor Bainbridge's blog.

According to the National Institute for Labor Relations Research (NILRR), more than 10,000 incidents of union violence have been reported in America's newspapers, and on television and radio, since 1975. But media-reported union violence constitutes only the tip of the iceberg. Samplings of police and company records collected by NILRR and other scholars indicate that 80-90% of violent union incidents are never reported in the media. (Link)

Posted by: NCW | Mar 1, 2007 5:52:41 PM

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