Saturday, June 09, 2007

Locke High School and the Employee Free Choice Act

The recent events at Locke High School in Los Angeles that involve Green Dot has prompted EIA’s Mike Antonucci to blog further about his perception of a dichotomy between teacher union support of House Bill 800 (Employee Free Choice Act) and recent UTLA actions at Locke.

For the unititated, the Employee Free Choice Act started out in the House of Representatives as an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act, originally passed in the 1930’s. Originally put in the hopper in February of this year, it was sponsored by California Representative George Miller and co-sponsored by over 200 other Representatives. The legislation survived its referral to the House Committee on Education and Labor with an amendment or two thrown in. It was put to a vote in the House, and passed—241 to 185. It was a vote largely divided along party lines, with 13 Republicans voting yes, and two Democrats voting no. It is currently placed on the Senate’s Legislative Calendar, with no major action since said placement at the beginning of March.

At the heart of legislation and the ensuing debate both on and off Capitol Hill is the provision in the Act that would replace secret ballot elections for union representation with a signed petition. Currently, employers don’t have to recognize unions as the sole bargaining unit for employees if they go through the card-check process. Employers can instead call for a secret election that is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The time between the call for the election and the actual election usually gives employers time to engage in anti-union techniques to try and persuade employees that it’s in their best interest not to unionize their workplace. Once the secret ballot is held and the union is certified as the bargaining representative of the employees, only then is the employer required to “deal” with the union.

The Employee Free Choice Act would allow employees to do a “card check” (petition), and provided that after an investigation by the NLRB the majority of the employees in a bargaining unit signed the petition, it immediately would certify the union as the sole representative of aforementioned employees, skipping the secret ballot altogether. Unions, labor advocacy groups and pro-labor individuals promote the legislation as strengthening the ability of US workers to form unions with a minimum of employer interference. They cite statistics that mention that union membership has been dropping over the past several decades; and further state that the usurpations and injustices suffered by workers in the United States has changed the labor landscape in this country necessitating legislative measures like the EFCA.

Anti-Union groups who are opposed to this legislation have been crying foul since its introduction into the House of Representatives. The National Right to Work Foundation, for example, strongly emphasizes that all employees have a right to NOT sign a card, and cautions employees as to their rights under the card check process—virtually instructing them not to participate in the card check process. Their website states “it is vitally important for employees to know that signing a union authorization card will likely mean that they will never get to cast a secret ballot for or against the union”.

Anti-labor groups are running scared from the EFCA, for it accelerates the union certification process, removing the secret ballot as the true litmus test for whether or not a workplace becomes unionized. Secret ballots do afford anonymity to workers who wish to unionize; their employers will know they voted but will only know the outcome of their vote, not the individual votes.

With the card-check process contained within this legislation, the veil of secrecy is removed and employers will be fully aware of who wishes to be unionized and who doesn’t. It is surprising that this information is not of interest to employers, as they know who will take what side. In some limited situations, it may make unionization of certain businesses more difficult—it’s easy to vote for something that will benefit yourself when your boss doesn’t know how you voted. Ultimately, the EFCA is a boon to workers throughout the United States who wish to improve their working conditions.

Now that the basics of the EFCA has been discussed, the question remains “How does this apply to the situation at Locke High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Education Intelligence Agency’s recent posts?

Mike Antonucci has used the recent events at Locke to highlight the dichotomy of teacher union support of card check when it comes to unionization of charter schools and union representation at currently “organized” schools. In fact, he writes “the teachers' unions support this type of deliberation and debate when it comes to charter conversion, but oppose it when it comes to union representation elections, is a question they don't want you to ask.” Alright, I’ll ask the question, as I’m in a union, I’ve taken something of a leadership role in person and on the internet and I pay dues to my local, state and national affiliate. That means I am best qualified to ask the question.

“Why do unions support card check when it comes to charter conversions but oppose it when it comes to currently “organized” schools and districts?”

The answer?

Unions exist to serve the best interests of their members; in order to do so, they must bank on their continued existence. The possibility of charter conversion through card check allows unions to spread their influence to a largely untapped resource, but at the same time it presents a potential liability (however minor) to their currently organized schools and districts.

Card check for current union members who wish to reorganize is, quite simply, one more tool that unions can use to determine whether or not they are meeting the needs of their members. It is the definitive referendum, one more tool that can be used by union members who feel as if their local, state or national affiliate is not getting accomplished things that are vital to their membership’s collective well-being.

Unions (of any service sector) who serve the vast majority of their members well should not see the EFCA as a liability. Unions who are unresponsive to their members’ needs should fear the EFCA.

I leave you with some of the sentiment (but none of the words) of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton first put forth in Federalist #51:

“If employers were angels, no unions would be necessary.”

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