Union Organizing In the 21st Century: Card Check and Roach Motels
An article in today’s New York Times about the Teamsters’ campaign to organize Federal Express describes a typical example of how difficult it is to organize a union these days:
Not long after 21 of the 23 drivers in Northborough petitioned last fall for an election to join the Teamsters, FedEx dismissed five union supporters and six others quit, with several complaining that managers had made their lives unbearable.
"They started to harass and intimidate everybody," Mr. Williams said. "Some people they tried to starve out. Instead of giving 120 to 130 packages, they cut it to 60 or 70 to reduce the money."
Ken Flynn, a pro-union driver who was dismissed, said that after the unionization drive began, management added six managers to the three already there. The new ones, he said, spent much of their time speaking out against the union. FedEx says the new managers were assisting with the holiday rush and helping to transfer the operation to another terminal in Northborough.
To sway the drivers, FedEx prepared a 25-minute DVD that accused the Teamsters of being incompetent and violent.
Meanwhile, on another planet, readers of USA Today and other newspapers may have noticed a recent one-page ad by a new corporate supported anti-union outfit (mis)named The Center For Union Facts. The ad asks "Why is a union like a Roach Motel?"
The answer: "Because getting in is the easy part."
In that one heading lies the essence of the Center’s lies, the reasons for its existence, and the state of the American labor movement today. The real union fact is that there is almost nothing harder than getting into a union these days — particularly if the union chooses to use the classic secret ballot election process that has been the staple of union organizing for decades.
What is the Center for Union Facts, and why does it exist? The executive Director of the Center is a figure well known in corporate flackdom named Richard Berman. Berman is infamous for forming corporate-backed associations to defend mercury in fish (FishScam.com), challenge Mothers Against Drunk Driving and its efforts to lower the legal blood alcohol content limit, dismiss concern about obesity as "hype," defend the tobacco industry against smoking curbs in restaurants and the beverage industry against restrictions on alcohol use, and to argue against raising the minimum wage. The Center is funded by corporate money, although Berman refuses to reveal his funding sources.
Accrding to its website, the Center is "dedicated to showing Americans the truth about today’s union leadership." In addition to running fact-challenged ads. the Center also sees itself as a repository for factoids about self-serving union “bosses” and union corruption. But Labor Economist and blogger Nathan Newman, who actually drilled down into the data that the Center’s website provides, noted that Berman’s information doesn’t exactly make the point that he intended to make. Berman highlights "$400 million in labor racketeering fines and civil restitution in the last five years" which comes from a Department of Labor list. But and, lo and behold most were
businesses that defrauded the unions– ie. the union leaders were the victims not the criminals….In fact, almost all of the big money associated with the $400 million figure in labor racketeering was committed by private industry AGAINST unions, not by union officials.
And why have the corporate powers-that-be drafted Berman into action? The answer can be found most recently in a union victory for janitors at the University of Miami in Florida. But this wasn’t your classic union victory. The janitors, represented by the Service Employees International Union, were not striking to win wage increases, nor did the victory mean that the company had agreed to recognize the union. After a lengthy strike, a hunger strike by workers and a commitment on the part of the university to raise wages significantly, the janitors continued to hold out for something even more valuable: a "card check" agreement with Unicco, the university’s contractor that employs the janitors.
Card check means that instead of the traditional "secret ballot" election to determine if workers want to organize a union, management voluntarily agrees to recognize the union if a majority sign cards indicting their desire to join the union. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), it is up to the employer to agree to card check recognition or to require a traditional election. Another tactic being employed by unions is "neutrality" agreements where the employer agrees not to actively campaign against the union.
Because of the difficulty in conducting a fair election, card check campaigns — instead of secret ballot elections — have become labor’s main tool for organizing the unorganized. Card checks were used to sign up roughly 70 percent of the private-sector workers who joined unions last year, according to the A.F.L.-C.I.O, compared with less than 5 percent two decades ago. Workers in Las Vegas casinos, janitors in Houston and thousands of workers at Cingular have organized recently using card check. The problem is that although some 57 million workers say they would join a union, according to research by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, secret ballot elections, conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), generally fall victim to management campaigns of intimidation, threats, harassment and firings that tend to turn the vote against the union, even when a majority of workers had initially expressed interest.
For the University of Miami strikers, the prospect of an NLRA election was so threatening that the they agreed that 60% of employees would have to sign cards, whereas an NLRB election would have only required 50% of those voting in favor of a union. Nathan Newman explains the significance of this concession in a Labor Blog posting. The agreement:
illustrates how bad the NLRB election process is. The workers preferred a lengthy strike, a hunger strike that hospitalized multiple workers, and a requirement for a super-majority rather than face the buzzsaw of a federal election, where employers manipulate the rules and routinely threaten and fire workers to defeat unions.
Union elections have become so corrupted and card check campaigns have gotten so popular and successful that corporate America is starting to get a bit nervous. What to do? Create a bogus astroturf organization called The Center For Union Facts and run a bunch of ads claiming that card check violates the American way because it takes away workers’ right to a secret ballot election. One recent ad, for example, shows photos of Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, and UNITE-HERE President Bruce Raynor, asking which one was quoted as saying "There’s no reason to subject workers to an election."
The answer, of course, is labor leader Raynor.
Anyone who knows anything about union organizing campaigns in the US understands that NRLA “secret ballot elections have little to do with “free” elections and that if democracy in American politics looked anything like democracy in the American workplace, we’d be living in a fascist dictatorship: According to a report issued by American Rights at Work,
- 30% of employers fire pro-union workers.
- 49% of employers threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union, but only 2% actually do.
- 51% of employers coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery or favoritism.
- 82% of employers hire high-priced unionbusting consultants to fight union organizing drives.
- 91% of employers force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors.
And the systematic use of legal and illegal tactics impedes union organizing.
- Aided by a weak labor law system that fails to protect workers’ rights, employers manipulate the government-supervised union recognition process in a way that allows them to abuse their power and significantly influence the outcome of union representation elections.
- In 91% of the union recognition petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the survey, a majority of workers indicated they wanted a union before the process began. In several cases, workers demonstrated more than 80% support.
- However, unions were victorious in only 31% of the campaigns in which they filed a petition.
How do these anti-union campaigns play out in the workplace? A recent New York Times article described what happens when workers try to organize
At the Consolidated Biscuit bakery in McComb, Ohio, Bill Lawhorn said more than 70 percent of the workers had signed cards in favor of joining the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union when he led efforts to form a union in 2002. Nonetheless, the union lost a secret-ballot election, 485 to 286, after Consolidated Biscuit conducted a vigorous anti-union campaign. Two years later a National Labor Relations Board judge found that managers had illegally spied on union supporters and had warned them that the bakery would go bankrupt if a union was voted in.
While unions can challenge the elections, and often win, by the time the workers get their jobs back, the organizing campaign is long dead. For example, in 1997, the United Food and Commercial Workers lost an election at the Smithfield Packing Company in North Carolina 1,910 to 1,107. The union filed a number of unfair labor complaints, and nine years later, the union won:
Concluding that Smithfield had engaged in "intense and widespread coercion," the appeals court upheld the labor board’s ruling that one worker was improperly coerced when he was ordered to stamp hogs with a "Vote No" stamp.
The appeals court ordered Smithfield to reinstate four fired workers, one of whom was beaten by the plant’s police the day of the election. The court concurred with the labor board’s findings that Smithfield’s managers were not credible when they insisted that the four workers were fired for reasons other than their support for the union.
The circuit court noted that Smithfield had illegally confiscated union materials, spied on workers’ union activities, threatened to fire workers who voted for the union, and threatened to freeze wages and shut the plant if the employees unionized. The Smithfield plant has 5,500 employees and is the world’s largest pork-processing facility.
The union, which has complained about how long the litigation has taken, is continuing organizing efforts at the plant, but is not seeking an election.
Instead of an election, the union is putting together a coalition of churches, civil rights groups and colleges students to press the company for neutrality in the unionization fight. Not surprisingly, the company opposes those tactics, boasting about how well management and employees work together, that they don’t need a "third party", that neutrality would "bar the company from telling employees about the downside of unionization," workers would be "shielded from the facts," and wouldn’t learn the "full story." Here’s part of the “full story” that Smithfield probably doesn’t want you to hear:
Lorena Ramos, 29, an immigrant from Honduras, said Smithfield’s managers and consultants often told the workers that the union only wanted employees’ dues money and would cause strikes that could lead to violence, job losses and even closing the plant. Her right arm was badly injured when it got caught in a conveyer belt as she was scooping dry ice into packing boxes. She and her husband were outspoken union supporters, and they said they were shocked and embarrassed when the plant’s internal police force arrested them, handcuffed them and paraded them through the plant, accusing them of setting a fire in one of the plant’s cafeterias. The county’s district attorney dropped the charges for lack of evidence.
Ms. Ramos quit the plant after the arrest, too scared to return. The union hired her as an organizer because of her popularity, courage and communications skills.
"Right now if the workers want something to change at the plant, the plant’s not going to listen to them," she said. "If the workers have a union, then they will be listened to."
But listening to workers is the last thing on corporate America’s mind, and their fear is reflected in the “Secret Ballot Protection Act of 2005" introduced by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint in the Senate and Congressman Charlie Norwood (R-GA) in the House, which would prohibit employers from recognizing a union based on card check instead of an election. Their bill as 5 co-sponsors in the Senate and 91 in the House. Norwood and DeMint’s bill is competing with a bill introduced by Congressman George Miller (D-CA) in the House and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) in the Senate, called the “Employee Free Choice Act,” (S. 842 and H.R. 1696) which would require employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards authorizing union representation. The bill would also toughen punishment for violating workers rights to organize a union. The bill has 43 co-sponsors in the Senate and 215 co-sponsors in the House.
But the Center continues its well-funded crusade. Its most recent campaign is a slick television commercial that asks a group of perky worker/actors what they “like” about their union: Paying union dues (just so I can keep my job), supporting union bosses’ fat-cat lifestyles, that mydues are going to politicians I don’t like, and how uions discriminate against minorities,… You get the idea.
Union Facts raised $3 million from unnamed companies, foundations and individuals to run the ad on Fox News and other local stations. The ad is so offensive that some local stations like WJBK-TV in Detroit, are refusing to run it.
But Berman’s fans can take some heart in the fact that at least they’re loved in Elaine Chao’s Labor Department, according to the Washington Post:
There’s a new spirit at the department, judging from a June 15 [sic] e-mail from Lynn Gibson, an aide in the public liaison office that alerts people to a training opportunity.
"The next [noteworthy item] is a new website, if you were not already aware of it," she says. "The website is dedicated to providing information on labor unions and their expenditures. UnionFacts.com launched on Monday, February 13th, and some news links are listed below."
Turns out, according to a linked article by our colleague Amy Joyce , this is a stridently anti-union site that talks about the "political activities, and criminal activity of the labor movement." The site lets members check their union’s "shady tactics" and highlights how to bust a union’s right to represent workers at a company.
That doesn’t surprise me much. When I worked at the Labor Department during the Clinton Administration, the televisions in the lobby were turned to CNN all day long. When I returned after 2001, the TVs were tuned to Fox.
Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space