A movement is afoot to take away the right of workers to decide for themselves which union will represent them. Oddly enough, it is the unions themselves that are clamoring for the change.
Ordinarily, when a union seeks to represent a group of workers, it begins by collecting “authorization cards” that are signed by those workers. Once it has signatures from 30 percent of those workers, it files a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to be recognized as their representative. The employer may then either call for a secret ballot vote to determine representation, or if it is convinced that the union’s support is strong it may agree to recognize the union on its own.
But now the Teamsters and UNITE, which represents garment industry workers, are following a tactic they are calling “uniform justice” to organize the employees of Cintas, a provider of uniforms and laundry services with 27,000 employees and 14 manufacturing sites in the United States and Canada, including Michigan.
Rather than organize Cintas workers by persuading them to support the union, the new strategy begins by putting pressure on Cintas. The unions are approaching religious, social and political groups and convincing them that Cintas is engaged in unfair, anti-union activity. These organizations then target the employer, damaging its public reputation. The unions have also approached Cintas clients, such as Starbucks coffee, to get them to stop using Cintas services. These methods, referred to as a “corporate campaign,” can inflict heavy damage. One such campaign directed at Family Foods contributed to the bankruptcy of that Kalamazoo-based grocery chain.
The goal is to force Cintas to sign what are referred to as “neutrality” and “card-check” agreements, in order to avoid further public relations damage. So far, Cintas has refused to do so.
A “neutrality” agreement is, in theory, an agreement that the employer will not oppose unionization. Intended to prevent “coercive and threatening” anti-union messages from employers, these agreements often cross the line into active management support for the union. Many times, to avoid further public embarrassment, employers will, as part of the agreement, provide union officials with worker contact information and give union organizers access to employees on company facilities during work time.
“Card check” means that the employer agrees up front that once a union shows it has authorization cards signed by 50 percent of its employees, it will recognize that union, without holding a secret-ballot vote.
While this process may seem fair at first glance, it is full of pitfalls for all workers — not just for those who do not wish to be unionized. They may sign the cards not realizing it means they won’t be voting by secret ballot. Cards may also be signed under intimidation. Indeed, sometimes, the terms of a neutrality agreement allow union organizers to visit workers’ homes uninvited, or allow worksite visits that give workers the impression that their employers expect them to join the union.
Neutrality and card-check agreements also mean that management will give one union a leg-up on organizing workers, without regard to the opinion of employees, who may not want to unionize, or may prefer to be represented by some other union. This means management may “select” a union for its own workers, and creates the risk that a union may make concessions not authorized by workers, in exchange for unfair organizing advantages.
The reason union leaders are resorting to such tactics is because support for unions is eroding. Between 1992 and 2002, unions in Michigan lost 80,000 members, while the state added 400,000 jobs. Unions have alleged that this is due to violations of worker rights, such as intimidation, threats and unwarranted firings of union supporters. Union officials argue that neutrality and card-check agreements are needed to counteract these abuses by employers.
But to the extent that the abuses occur, the solution is stronger enforcement of existing labor laws, not a shortcut around the free and fair elections that ensure that workers’ interests are taken into account.
Unions have accused employers of many things. But they have yet to credibly accuse the NLRB of failing to hold fair votes on a regular basis. There is no need to pressure Cintas into a neutrality or card-check agreement. When a majority of Cintas workers are convinced they want a union, they will vote to have one.
Until then, the best course of action is to resist the temptation to interfere, and let Cintas workers make up their own minds.
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(Paul Kersey is labor policy research associate for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)