thansk to John Vincent
Nov. 15, 2006, 11:28PM
Unions hope bill energizes organizing
By L.M. SIXEL
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
ONCE the Democrats take control of Congress, expect to see legislation
fairly quickly to boost the minimum wage, make student loans more
affordable and require employers to permit union card checks.
Union card checks?
It's not exactly a front-burner issue for most folks. Or even understood
But the easy method of labor organizing, which allows unions to collect
the signatures of a majority of employees who say they want to be
represented, is high on the agenda of organized labor, which has struggled
for years to win workplace elections.
Under current law, unless a company agrees to accept signed cards, the
National Labor Relations Board sets a date for an election, with the
six-week campaign putting workers in the crossfire.
Workers can be forced to attend "captive audience meetings," during which
officials focus on the dues employees will have to pay, what union leaders
earn and characterize the union as an unnecessary third-party intervener.
Meanwhile, union leaders make home visits and buttonhole employees in
parking lots and break rooms, hoping to convince them that joining the
union is in their best interest.
"Workers in America have lost any effective right to organize unions,"
said Stewart Acuff, national organizing director for the AFL-CIO, which
supports the card-check method.
He met this week with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the likely next
chairman of the House Education and the Work Force Committee, about taking
quick action on the legislation.
"There is no effective sanction against employer threats, retaliation or
termination of union leaders," Acuff said. He added that more than 20,000
workers a year for the past decade have been fired for trying to form
unions or for participating in similar union activities.
There's another incentive for unions to want card checks they win more
When it's a secret-ballot election, unions win only 54 percent of the
time, said Mark Jodon, an employment lawyer with Littler Mendelson in
Houston. But when there's a card check, unions get recognized more than 90
percent of the time.
"No wonder unions do not want elections, if they can avoid them," Jodon said.
Election waived in Houston
When the Service Employees International Union started organizing 5,300
janitors in Houston last year, the union won an agreement from the five
companies that they would waive an election and accept signature cards
While that deal came about fairly quickly, the SEIU has fought for years
to win recognition for a card-check process.
Method seen as key
Card checks are critical for the kind of campaigns the SEIU runs, union
spokeswoman Lynda Tran said.
"We can get in quickly, get these workers and let them make their choice,"
At Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, the SEIU ran an intense
corporate campaign for seven years against the hospital just so it could
collect signature cards to organize 1,850 nonprofessional employees.
"That gives you some idea of their tenacity," said Jack Haskell, executive
vice president and chief operating officer of Adams, Nash, Haskell &
Sheridan, a consultant based in Hartford, Conn., that works with companies
facing organizing campaigns.
Hospital spokesman Mark D'Antonio said he can't comment because the
hospital has a "nondisparagement agreement" with the SEIU.
A bill that's already been introduced in Congress would require employers
to recognize a union if signature cards are signed by a majority of
Offered in 2005, the Employee Free Choice Act has 215 co-sponsors in the
House and 44 in the Senate.
"We're pushing very hard for it to be enacted by this Congress," Acuff
said, adding that it also contains provisions for triple damages from
employers that violate the law as well as provisions for unions to obtain
But, Jodon said, the bill isn't fair to employees or employers.
Free employee choice is based on secret ballot elections, Jodon said. It's
too easy for union leaders to intimidate employees into signing something
they don't really understand.
And employers want a chance to present their side, he said, because it's
too one-sided if it's just a discussion between a union representative and
While the Employee Free Choice Act isn't on the minds of executives
nationwide, Michael Lotito, an employment lawyer with Jackson Lewis in San
Francisco, suspects it will be sometime soon.
"The vast majority of employers think labor unions are dead and not a
threat to their organizations," Lotito said. "They haven't had to deal
with them for 25 years."
They also believe their employees are happy and wouldn't join a union, he
said. They don't realize how rapidly growing unions like the SEIU target
companies for strategic reasons and then go about approaching employees to
build the grass roots.
"Employees become pawns," he said. "That's what a corporate campaign is
Disputing idea of pawns
"I definitely don't think that's the case," she said. "Just talk to any
janitor, and they'd say this is about improving their lives. I don't think
they'd say they're a pawn in a fight they're putting their hearts and
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