Workplace Rights Under Threat

By David Swanson
August 3, 2004

In 1935 the National Labor Relations Board was created for the purpose of encouraging collective bargaining – that is, unionization. The NLRB is not some radical left-wing group. It’s the U.S. government body that oversees labor and management relations. But it was created in a different era and no longer serves its intended purpose.

Within the past two months, the NLRB has decided by a 3-2 vote along party lines
1) that graduate students working as teaching assistants aren’t really working and don’t have the right to form a union,
2) that non-union employees have no right to bring a colleague with them to a disciplinary meeting, and
3) to consider the possibility of banning something called 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.

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.

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.

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.

The organization responsible for the complaints that led to the NLRB’s decision to review card check is the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. This group claims to be fighting for the little guy who is intimdated into joining a union against his or her wishes. Yet it is employers who can intimidate with the threat of firing, transfer to an undesirable worksite, mandatory overtime, or refusal to promote. Union organizers can at most threaten not to be someone’s best friend.

The NRWLDF 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. One has to wonder why a group that sells itself as fighting for the little guy needs all that money from a very big guy.

If we don’t start paying attention, the John M. Olin Foundation is likely to purchase our right to organize and run it through a shredder.

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