Saturday, August 30, 2008

Don't mention the part about ending elections!

A special message in honor of Labor Day:

A little while back, I wrote of George McGovern's opinion piece advising members of the Democratic party not to support the adoption of the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, the legislation supported by the SEIU to remove the need for elections as part of a union organizing drive. My post got picked up by a website called EFCA Updates, a blog I had never heard of published by a law firm called Kilpatrick Stockton LLP, which apparently represents managements of companies with regard to labor issues. The firm also cited other blogs with points similar to mine; but this made me curious what other folks out in the blogosphere might have said in response to Senator McGovern's editorial and generally on this topic.

So, I did a blog search and discovered tons of commentary on the issue pro and con. (I will not refer you to the ones who engaged in ad hominem attacks on the former Senator. Why is it that some people feel the need to denigrate those who disagree with them? Why can't they let the strength of their arguments carry the day?)

Remarkably, while the blogosphere is full of ideas, the topic still does not make it into political debates. This blog presents the issue with a Minnesota candidate in an interesting way that you might or might not find convincing. But I think it contains an element of apt political analysis: People running for the Democratic nomination in their states have stressed their support for EFCA as part of their campaign in part to garner the SEIU's and other organized labor extensive funding of and involvement in those primary campaigns.

But then, when the candidates get to the general election and have to convince non-party regulars to vote for them, they may not be all that anxious to have this issue front and center in their campaign. After all, as Senator McGovern noted, it is really hard to explain to the general public why workers should not have the right to a secret ballot election when it is long-held American value. I note, for example, that even Barack Obama avoids this important aspect of the proposed legislation when he puts it this way:

Ensure Freedom to Unionize: Obama believes that workers should have the freedom to choose whether to join a union without harassment or intimidation from their employers. Obama cosponsored and is strong advocate for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bipartisan effort to assure that workers can exercise their right to organize. He will continue to fight for EFCA's passage and sign it into law.

I want to be quite clear that I have great respect for Senator Obama and for his persuasive powers of oratory and his ability to deliver a clear message. But something tells me that he is never going to be so direct as to say the following on the campaign trail or in a debate with Senator McCain:

I will sign legislation allowing unions to be certified as the sole bargaining representative in companies, hospitals, and other institutions without having to hold an election. Although it is vitally important under our democratic system for Senator McCain and me, every member of Congress, every Governor, and all other public officials to go through a process of secret ballot elections, unions shouldn't need to have workers do that. The idea of a secret ballot is old-hat because workers will be intimidated when they are alone in the privacy of the voting booth. In contrast, there is no danger of intimidation when union officials and fellow workers approach individuals one at a time to collect authorization cards.
It is perfectly fine in such an environment if 50.1 percent of the workers at a company sign an authorization card that binds themselves and the other 49.9 percent of the workers to be members of a union. That's why we don't need elections anymore.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Two comments:

Sen. McGovern, as beloved a figure as he is among many progressive Americans, has turned sharply to the right on many issues lately. He has taken to newspaper op-ed pages in recent years to praise Wal-Mart's treatment of its workers and its health care policies, to defend the predatory "payday loan" industry, to complain about environmental regulations,and, sadly, to join corporate America's efforts to make sure it remains as difficult as possible for workers to form unions. I still respect Sen. McGovern's service to his country, both in fighting for it in World War II and in working so hard to stop a senseless war in Vietnam. But anyone who has listened to what Sen. McGovern now believes about these issues would agree that he's not very liberal any more. Using him to claim that Democrats oppose the Employee Free Choice Act is like arguing that Sen. Lieberman's views prove that the Iraq War is quite popular among Democrats.

Second: Employers' rhetoric about preserving democracy would be more credible if they would engage in an effort to fix some of the flaws that make the existing election process inherently undemocratic.

William Gould, who served as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board during the Clinton Administration, lays out some of these flaws in a recent piece on Slate and also proposes some specific solutions.

Gould's piece is here:
http://www.slate.com/id/2198736/

Mr. Levy: what's your reaction to the solutions that Mr. Gould proposes?

I am so wise said...

"The idea of a secret ballot is old-hat because workers will be intimidated when they are alone in the privacy of the voting booth."

That logic did not work when laws preventing intimidation in governmental elections were passed, so why you think that logic is valid here is puzzling. Perhaps you can further explain.

Paul Levy said...

To Anon 11:29 --

Ah, you immediately fall into the same type of rhetoric that so many other used in their blogs: "Anyone who has listened to what Sen. McGovern now believes about these issues would agree that he's not very liberal any more. Using him to claim that Democrats oppose the Employee Free Choice Act is like arguing that Sen. Lieberman's views prove that the Iraq War is quite popular among Democrats." That kind of commentary is meant to discredit Senator McGovern among his many liberal Democratic admirers, as opposed to addressing the merits of what he said. I never "used him to claim that Democrats oppose" EFCA. In fact, the point of his article is that liberal Democrats often support EFCA but would be wiser to oppose it. I referred to him because I believe his position on this issue has validity and because he remains respected by many in America.

Now, to the merits. It seems to be that the relevant part of Gould's piece for the current discussion is the following: "Quick elections are the key to meaningful reform because delay is the principal way in which labor law stacks the deck against employees." Notice that he says "quick elections", not "no elections."

Dear I am so wise:

I am not quite sure what you mean by saying, "That logic did not work when laws preventing intimidation in governmental elections were passed, so why you think that logic is valid here is puzzling. Perhaps you can further explain." As far as I know, the government has never eliminated elections when there when there were arguments about intimidating environments around them. Please explain what your concern is.

But neither of you address the major point that I made. I respect the fact that many candidates feel so strongly that EFCA is the solution, but why don't they also expound its major "virtue" in their campaign ads, debates, and appearances. I think it is because they know or fear that most Americans would find the concept of eliminating union elections to be very troubling. Why don't you comment on that political observation even if you disagree with me on the merits of EFCA?

Anonymous said...

Last week one of Sen. McCain's health care advisors argued that no one in the United States really goes without health insurance because people can always go to a hospital emergency room and get care, because hospitals are required to provide care.

This argument, while technically true, is absurd. Giving people access to an ER doesn't fix the larger problems that come from not having consistent access to good primary care. And while hospitals are required to provide care to the uninsured, they certainly aren't required to provide it for free or low cost. Low-income workers know more than anyone that an ER visit can come with a gigantic bill and crippling debt.

But the argument that ER access solves the problem of not having health insurance, I have to say, does remind me of corporate America's claims about "workplace democracy" and secret ballots.

Secret ballot elections do not remedy the antidemocratic flaws in the existing process workers have to use to form unions any more than access to hospital ERs makes it okay that 47 million Americans lack health coverage.

There is overwhelming evidence that the existing process workers use is not free and fair. William Gould enumerates some of the reasons why in his Slate piece.

But instead of engaging with workers in a serious debate about how to ensure that employees actually can enjoy the right to form organizations if they want to, employers are fighting tooth and nail to preserve the broken status quo, seizing on one aspect of the process -- how workers signal their choices -- while pretending that there's nothing wrong with the myriad other problems that render the status quo undemocratic.

Which is like saying that we shouldn't care if people don't have health insurance because they can always go to the ER.

Progressives have put forward a number of alternatives ideas for empowering workers to form unions through a free and fair process.

Gould puts forward specific ideas in his Slate argument. Progressive author David Sirota further discusses the problems with the status quo and another idea for fixing it proposed by labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan here: http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20080727/OPINION04/679313440

And I'm sure you're aware that the Service Employees Union, an organization that you've criticized at length before on this blog, has also been flexible on this issue. For example, it recently agreed to compromise with Yale New Haven Hospital, agreeing to hold a secret ballot election instead of using majority signup, as long as the hospital administration agreed not to intimidate or mislead workers on the question of forming a union. Unfortunately, the hospital administration took its commitment to a fair process about as seriously as Vice President Cheney and his staff take the Constitution and the Geneva Convention. A neutral arbitrator ruled that the hospital management blatantly and egregiously violated the agreement and made a fair election impossible.

If employers genuinely care as much about democracy as they claim to, shouldn't they have a responsibility to offer solutions that would restore workers' real freedom to make the decision about organizing an employee organization without fear?

Judging from the substance of the debate so far, employers are wholly uninterested in that larger problem. They continue to pretend that the status quo works just fine.

Unfortunately, by cherry picking once sentence where Gould agrees with you as "relevant" -- and conspicuously ignoring the remaining substance of his argument -- you appear to be taking the same stance.

[On the candidates: I suppose you’re right. I wish the candidates would talk about this more. It’s a shame that American presidential elections tend to focus on a small number of issues, often in a superficial way.

But somehow I doubt Sen. McCain will say this:

I pose as a maverick, but I run as the candidate of a party that is dominated by corporate special interests. I admit that I don’t really care about the economy, so I defer to them on those issues. This powerful business community is implacably opposed to allowing ordinary American workers have a greater voice with their employers about issues like their wages, their health coverage, and their work environment. For years, people in my party have claimed that economic inequality in this country doesn’t matter. But that’s getting hard to do as even more and more Americans are concerned about the gap between the very wealthy and the average worker. Billionaire Warren Buffet has pointed out that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does. Even the Republican-appointed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned that inequality is a growing problem and points to weakened unions as one reason why working Americans are falling behind. Business and workers know that our labor law makes it extraordinarily difficult for workers to form unions. I believe that corporate special interests are defending that process by arguing that attempts to fix it are somehow not democratic. I will join them in this cynical argument, because it makes as much sense as my claim that anyone who disagrees with me on foreign policy does not put this country “first.”

newman said...

i,m from the other side of the world but your comments ring true everywhere - good blog.

Paul Levy said...

Dear anon 1:24,

A few points in response. First, if you read the many entries on my blog on the topic of the SEIU, you will find that I critique and expose their practice of running corporate campaigns against employers in an effort to denigrate the institutions, the management, and the voluntary community-based trustees. They hope, in doing so, to get them to agree to "neutrality agreements" that basically end the possibility of discourse during an organizing campaign. And, I have mentioned the tens of millions of dollars they have spent in supporting political candidates. I don't think you will ever find that I have "criticized at length" or at all the SEIU's purposes and hopes for workers. I do, however, view their approach to organizing and their hope of eliminating elections as incredibly disrespectful of workers.

Second, I did not address all of Gould's suggestions here because they were not applicable to the main point of this blog posting -- the lack of candor by candidates about their position on this issue -- and I wanted to make the point that the previous commenter left off, that Gould does not seem to support elimination of elections or the political wisdom of pursuing that goal.

Third, this statement -- "If employers genuinely care as much about democracy as they claim to, shouldn't they have a responsibility to offer solutions that would restore workers' real freedom to make the decision about organizing an employee organization without fear?" -- creates the ultimate straw man. The existing NLRB system has resulted in millions of workers being in unions. Nothing needs to be "restored." You might wish there were more people in unions, but the fact that people sometimes vote against their formation is not an indication of a broken system. It is an indication that they have thought about and debated the issues and reached their own conclusion.

Finally, while you raise important issues with regard to the nation's health care system, I don't see that as at all analogous to this issue. But perhaps I just miss your point.

Anonymous said...

Of course I agree that sometimes workers prefer not to form a union. What I'm concerned about are the many instances where workers have made good faith efforts to form unions but have seen the democratic will of the majority thwarted by an employer that takes advantage of law that is weak and ineffective.

As Gould -- the former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board -- writes about the process he personally oversaw, its weaknesses "make it too easy for employers to intimidate and coerce workers, including by dismissing them for organizing. And this in turn diminishes employee interest in unions and thus undercuts the right to collective bargaining they are supposed to enjoy."

For those who want to read in detail how this plays out in an actual workplace, the neutral arbitrator's report on the conduct of the administration of Yale New Haven Medical Center was posted by the New Haven Independent newspaper here: http://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/upload/2007/10/Final_Report_on_Remedies_10-23-07%5B1%5D.pdf

The arbitrator found that the hospital was "untruthful" in its communications with employees, that employees were "threatened with loss of overtime, wage differentials, PIP benefits, prescription drug coverage, scheduling flexibility, and the ability to speak directly to their supervisors. They were threatened with more onerous working conditions and even loss of their jobs" if they voted to form a union, and that the employer was dishonest in its dealings with community stakeholders.

This behavior, of course, makes a mockery of the principles of a free and fair democratic process. And it only came to light because the hospital, the workers, and community leaders had agreed to a process that was supposed to provide a higher standard for protecting Yale employees' democratic rights.

It's telling that after being sanctioned by the arbitrator Yale hospital management then turned around and demanded that workers vote under the existing NLRB process, because they full well knew that they could get away scot free with this sort of thing under that far weaker set of rules.

This is the process that Mr. Levy and other employers continue to portray as acceptable, a claim that I can't help but see as deeply unserious and even supercilious – much like arguing that the solution to the energy crisis is to “drill here, drill now” or that there’s no such thing as uninsured crisis in America.

---

By the way, Happy Labor Day. May the spirits of Lucy Parsons, Sidney Hillman, and Philip Murray be with you.

Paul Levy said...

Now, you see, I am accused of being "deeply unserious and even supercilious". As I have noted above, why is it that people can't accept a point of view as simply a point of view without attributing nasty motives or making personal attacks?

Note that I have offered my opinions in a straightforward fashion on this blog, signing my name so you can clearly identify that I am personally saying it. Then, a person who chooses to remain anonymous attempts to undermine my arguments by questioning my honesty.

Please see my new post above for more on this. I hope to persuade those of you who are not so engaged in one side or another of this issue that these are legitimate and important issues -- the discussion of which does not require people to stoop to low-grade tactics.

Meanwhile, too, the main point of this blog posting -- that politicians facing general elections seem to be reluctant to talk much about what EFCA would do -- remains uncontroverted.

Maki said...

Hello! What a great blog (I found yours from Blogs of Note)!! Very informative and I love how you talk to readers; very soft and kind tone. I'll definitely be coming back. ps - Election is coming up really soon and I could feel the heat; everybody is getting very antsy, I think..

Paul Levy said...

Many thanks, Maki.

Kat said...

I am voting for Obama becuase I agree with him a lot.