July 25, 2004 – Labor activists fear the future of union organizing could be in jeopardy if Congress passes a pending bill restructuring union elections.
The Republican-sponsored Secret Ballot Protection Act (H.R. 4343) would ban card check elections, in which a workplace becomes unionized if a majority of employees sign union cards. Instead, the bill, currently awaiting review in a House subcommittee, would require that all union elections be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), currently dominated by presidential appointees known for their hostility toward organized labor. Card check elections typically take less time than NLRB elections and are less costly. The employer just has to verify that a majority of workers signed union cards.
Union leaders have expressed outrage over the proposed bill, which they say would allow employers to drag out the election process, increasing costs and causing organizers to lose crucial momentum. Currently, employers are not required to agree to card check elections, but many do in order to improve employee relations, prevent strikes and encourage a quick conclusion to union drives Democrats have introduced a bill that would require employers to accept the results of card check elections,, but it is not expected to pass.
Elections held through the NLRB are often lengthy and complicated. First, 30 percent of workers have to sign a petition saying they want a union. Then, the NLRB decides which workers are eligible to join the union. Employers often try to influence this stage, claiming that certain workers are not eligible for membership. Many employers conduct mandatory staff meetings where they lecture about the detriments of unions. If workers do not attend such meetings, management can legally fire them. Union organizers usually cannot enter the workplace to hand out flyers or talk to workers, and typically can only stand outside the workplace before and after working hours.
"In an NLRB election, which can often take several months or more, the employer is free to wage a campaign where employees are intimidated, threatened, spied upon, harassed, and -- in a quarter of all cases -- fired, to suppress the formation of a union," said Nancy Schiffer, the AFL-CIOâ€™s associate general council, at an April hearing, Workday Minnesota reports.
Phil Wheeler, a regional director for the United Auto Workers, told the Connecticut-based Record-Journal that a card check system would have made a difference in a campaign to unionize Chef Solutions Inc. of North Haven in 2001. The NLRB itself said Chef Solutionsâ€™ management harassed, intimidated and even assaulted one worker in an attempt to crush the union drive, the Record-Journal reports. The Labor Board issued a complaint against the company, but no further action was taken.
"They've got people scared to death. If we had a card check, we'd have had a union there two years ago and the employer wouldn't have been able to violate the law," Wheeler said of the Chef Solutions unionizing effort. "All those violations took place after we petitioned for an election."
Representative Charlie Norwood (R-GA), the billâ€™s author, told reporters that card check elections let union organizers manipulate workers into unionizing. "Thereâ€™s simply no good reason why workers should have their right to a fair and secret ballot election replaced with a practice that brings threats, arm-twisting, intimidation, and shakedowns from big union bosses," he said.
However, the "big union bosses" Norwood refers to have seen their power diminish over the past two decades. Union membership continues to decline. Only 12.9 percent of all workers belonged to a union in 2003, down from 13.3 percent in 2002. The exporting of union jobs to non-union workers overseas, layoffs and the decline of traditionally unionized jobs like manufacturing have all contributed to the low memberships. Nonetheless, workers who belong to a union still earn 27 percent more, on average, than their non-unionized counterparts and are more likely to have health insurance and retirement benefits, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Card check elections have become increasingly crucial to unionsâ€™ efforts to stave off further decline. According to BNA Plus, the research firm of the Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington, DC-based media organization, the number of NLRB elections have decreased in recent years, as union organizers search for more effective election methods, the Kansas City Star reports. Last year, 2,333 NLRB elections were held, compared to 2,723 in 2002.
Major trade federations like the Union of Needletraders, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International (HERE) report that they organized 85 percent of their new members last year through card-check campaigns, according to the Kansas City Star.
In addition to the proposed legislation, the card check system is also under direct assault from the NLRB, which is conducting its own review of the unionization process. The Board will decide whether dissenting workers can hold a vote to decertify a union immediately following card check recognition. Currently, the union remains for one year before workers can vote to decertify it.
At the same time, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA) are proposing a bill that would require employers to recognize the results of card check elections. The bill, called the Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 3619 and S. 1925), is based on legislation originally written by Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), who died while in office in 2002. The bill would also triple back pay for workers whose employers fired them for union activity, the Record-Journal reports, and would prevent employers from requiring employees to attend anti-union meetings.
Union activists are lobbying in favor of the bill, saying that it will make union drives less costly and divisive. "The Employee Free Choice Act will enable workers to form unions without going through the meat-grinder of an NLRB election campaign, once a majority of workers sign authorizations demonstrating their desire to form a union," Schiffer, the AFL-CIO general counsel, said at the April hearing.
However, union leaders told the Record-Journal that they do not believe the bill will pass in the Republican-dominated House and Senate.