Media Underreport Major New Threat to Right to Organize

By David Swanson, ILCA Media Coordinator
Part of the Media Blackout series on underreported labor stories

While illegal violations of the right to organize a union — such as the firing of employees who express support for a union — are routinely underreported by the corporate media, the past 60 days have witnessed the underreporting of a serious new threat to the right to organize, a threat raised by the National Labor Relations Board. Nexis searching finds no mention of this story in broadcast media and only a handful of print articles, most of them misleading.

On June 7, the NLRB ruled, 3-2 along party lines, that it would review the legitimacy of the procedure known as card check. Card check is a procedure under which an employer recognizes a union when presented with signed cards in favor of joining a union from over 50 percent of employees. The main alternative to card check is an election, a process overseen by the NLRB which often drags on for years as the company’s lawyers throw up roadblocks and workers lose interest. Companies hold mandatory anti-union meetings and harass workers during many election campaigns. A survey of 400 NLRB election campaigns in the late 1990s found that 36 percent of workers who vote against union representation credit employer pressure with determining their vote. http://www.ustdrc.gov/research/bronfenbrenner.pdf

Card check has been legal since 1935, and the NLRB has repeatedly ruled it so. Card check was once the standard procedure for forming a union and has been relied on increasingly in recent years as the election process that worked fairly well in the 1950s and 1960s has become less of a real alternative, and as formal complaints of discrimination against workers who favor a union have risen to over 10,000 per year. Surveys have found that 42 million employees who are not represented by a union would like to have representation at work. Were the NLRB to rule card check illegal, the right to organize would effectively cease to exist for millions more in America. http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20020624&s=rogers&c=1

That the right to organize has come under a major new threat ought, in and of itself, to be a major story in the media. But this story is also closely connected to the current presidential campaign, itself the biggest media story at the moment. If the NLRB does not rule on this question before the next presidential term, the outcome of the election could determine the ruling. Senator John Kerry, if elected, would appoint new members to the NLRB. Kerry, during the past 60 days, has visited worksites and written to CEOs in support of card check. On July 16, the day after various parties filed briefs with the NLRB on this matter, hearings were held by a U.S. Senate subcommittee on a bill cosponsored by Kerry called the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would require recognition of a union following submission of cards from over 50 percent of workers. Currently recognition of a union through card check is at the employer’s discretion. Senate subcommittee testimony: http://ilcaonline.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=311

The EFCA was introduced last November by Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative George Miller. It would also provide that either an employer or a union could refer a first-contract negotiation to mediation by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. It would also impose stronger penalties for discrimination against an employee in response to the employee’s organizing efforts.

A Republican bill has also been introduced, one that would eliminate the use of card check. None of this activity is receiving significant media coverage.

While a Nexis search for “Catherine Zeta-Jones” turns up 957 articles during the past 30 days, a search for NLRB and “card check” turns up 55 articles during the past 60 days. Of these, many address particular union organizing drives rather than the NLRB’s general review of card check, several are letters to editors, and several more are repeats of the same articles. The unique articles squarely addressing the issue are few and generally very short in length. This search found no articles at all from most major newspapers, and short articles on inside pages of business sections from a handful of others. While this search found nothing from the New York Times, the Times on July 4 did mention Kerry’s support for card check (without mentioning the NLRB) deep in an article claiming that the U.S. economy is doing well and that Kerry’s health care plan is expensive.

The good news is that both the Associated Press and Reuters produced articles on the NLRB’s decision. The AP article in particular left much to be desired. The lead referred to this as a “case that could force unions to abandon recruiting strategies that allow them to bypass elections in the workplace.” The third sentence read: “The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is representing the dissatisfied workers who complained they were unionized despite their opposition.” A couple of sentences down, the union viewpoint was included in the form of a quote from “David Bonior, chairman of American Rights at Work, a new union-supported advocacy group.” No mention was ever made, in this or any other articles found by Nexis, of who supports the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. A search at MediaTransparency.org shows that the NRTWLDF has received $1,785,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation Inc., a foundation that grew out of a family business manufacturing chemicals and munitions. NRTWLDF has also received $155,000 from the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation, $35,000 from the Castle Rock Foundation (itself funded by the Adolph Coors Foundation), $25,000 from the Jacqueline Hume Foundation, and $9,500 from the Roe Foundation. One has to wonder why a group that sells itself as fighting for the little guy needs all this money from very big guys.

Bonior’s quote in the AP article was immediately followed by this: “Critics say that the voluntary recognition method allows union organizers to bully workers into signing union authorization cards because companies often grant unlimited access to the workplace.” The critics weren’t identified, but the next and final sentence in the article gives a clue: “‘Employees should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to unionize free of union and employer coercion,’ said Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation.” This claim was included despite extensive documentation of employer coercion in the NLRB election process, documentation easily available from the website of Bonior’s group at http://www.americanrightsatwork.org That companies during election drives often do not grant union organizers access to the workplace was not mentioned in the article.

The Reuters article showed up in Nexis as only four sentences, but can be found at CommonDreams.org in a version three times as long. CommonDreams used the headline “Labor Board Ruling Threatens Union Recruiting,” but the Houston Chronicle used “Federal Labor Board Looks Askance at Union Technique,” and stuck the article inside the Business section. The lead read: “A recent decision by federal labor relations overseers jeopardizes a recruiting strategy that unions have used with increasing success to try to stem their declining memberships.” The article presented the issue succinctly and included two quotes from the AFL-CIO. Of course, readers of the Houston Chronicle missed most of that.

The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press provided perhaps the most extensive coverage of any papers, each running an article on the NLRB decision and mentioning it in other articles. The Detroit News ran an article that addressed the issue as if it applied only to the UAW, the union involved in one of the cases under review. The first opinion expressed in the article was: “Critics say workers often are coerced into signing cards and secret ballot elections are a fairer way to determine whether union representation is desired.” The article later quoted the President of the UAW, but referred to him as “lashing out at the decision.” The same article contained quotes from several named sources opposing card check, but only that one in support of it. To its credit, the News later ran a column by the UAW President. But it also ran an editorial — also carried by Copley News service — that began: “Workers should have the right to union representation. But they should also have the right to an election with a secret ballot to make that decision.”

The Free Press began an article with admirable clarity: “The National Labor Relations Board sent a strong signal this week what a second term for President George W. Bush in the White House might look like. In what could be a blow to the United Auto Workers and other unions, the Republican-majority NLRB said it would decide whether to curtail a union’s ability to organize workers though a simplified process known as neutrality and card-check agreements.” But this article presented anti-card check opinions before any in favor. This makes a difference: the version of this article printed by the Richmond Times Dispatch did not include the pro-card check opinion.

The Chicago Tribune was the largest newspaper to report the story, and it began its explanation of card check this way: “The so-called card-check process has become popular among unions as they have sought ways to avoid the regular secret ballot system carried out by the NLRB.” The Tribune included opinions from the AFL-CIO and the two dissenting NLRB members. The Toledo Blade and the Cleveland Plain Dealer also ran articles. And the Fort Wayne News Sentinel published a paragraph.

A column by Robert Novak addressed this topic, and it showed up in Nexis from the Augusta Chronicle, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and the Chicago Sun-Times. Novak turned reality upside-down and claimed that “Both Kerry and Edwards have joined Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in urging the National Labor Relations Board to adopt card check instead of secret ballots.” The reader would never guess that what is under consideration by the NLRB is the elimination of card check, a procedure that has been legal for almost 70 years. Novak described card check by making use of the same unnamed “critics” the Associated Press and the Detroit News had used: “Critics say that method results in coercion of workers by union organizers.”

The Chattanooga Times Free Press added an editorial for good measure that began: “Workers at a given company are entitled to form or not to form a union. But it is common sense that if they vote on unionizing, it should be by secret ballot. That would reduce undue pressure either by management or by union backers to vote one way or the other. Sadly, what is obviously the right method is not always used.”

Nexis found no editorials in support of keeping card check legal. Remarkably, Nexis does include 563 articles from the past 60 days mentioning the “liberal media.”

The only in depth reporting found by Nexis, the only articles long enough and clear enough to give a newcomer a good understanding of the card check issue, were from Business Week, which ran one article on the NLRB’s decision and another on the UAW’s use of card check.

To claim that the media’s treatment of the card check story is inadequate and unfair only makes sense if we are talking about the corporate media. The Nexis search also found an article from In These Times magazine that discussed the NLRB decision, the Employee Free Choice Act, and the positions of Kerry and Bush toward union organizing. And the independent media outlets not carried by Nexis have done a fine job. Stories can be found in a Google search from Workday Minnesota, the New Standard, Workers World, Oped News, People’s Weekly World, and many others, including the view from the right in Insight on the News, which ran a column by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Press Associates Incorporated (a news service used by many labor papers) published an article on the ILCA website: http://ilcaonline.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=76 and the ILCA also posted a column from the Center for American Progress: http://ilcaonline.org/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=100

David Swanson is Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA) at http://ILCAonline.org