Sunday, November 23, 2008

Laboring in Washington

(1) The Obama team continues to pull in very able people for the new Administration. One announced last week is Patrick Gaspard, executive vice president of SEIU Local 1199, who will be the President's Political Director. One of Mr. Gaspard's tasks now will be to remember to work for the interests of his new boss, rather than his old organization -- especially given the difficulty of persuading the public that eliminating secret ballots (through the so-called "Employee Free Choice Act") as part of union certification drives is consistent with core American values.

See the items below to get a sense of how this issue is likely to be portrayed. If you were the new President, would you make this a legislative priority? The new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is going to have thread this needle very, very carefully or he will jeopardize lots of other priority measures. Don't you think it is interesting that no one in the Administration seems to want to talk about this bill? Do a web search and try to find someone on the inside saying anything about it. If you do, please post the link as a comment.

(2) A friend writes:

I came across a news item whose irony I needed to pass along. Yesterday, the House Congressional caucus voted to replace the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, John Dingell. Since I've known Dingell for over 20 years, I decided to inquire as to the vote to see how close the election was. I was told that that information was not available, since the Democratic caucus members not only vote by secret ballot but also refuse to make public the final tally. Aren't those the same folks favoring the denial of secret balloting in union elections?

(3) A post on a blog on an anti-labor blog called LaborPains.org.

The Employee Freedom Action Committee (EFAC) called on Senate Democrats to replace today’s secret ballot vote over Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s (D-CT) committee chairman status with the public open vote method they would like to implement in union organizing elections.

Democrats are slated to cast a secret ballot vote today to decide whether Lieberman will maintain the chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. That stands in stark contrast with their support for the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which will effectively eliminate the secret ballot vote in union organizing elections. EFCA is expected to be one of the first items on the legislative agenda in 2009.

One of the benefits offered by a secret ballot vote is that Democratic Senators who support their colleague won’t have to fear retribution from left wing activists and bloggers who strongly dislike Lieberman. Similarly colleagues who oppose Lieberman won’t have to fear retribution from the Senator if he maintains his Chairmanship. That same protection from retribution will be denied American workers who will be forced to make a decision on the union in public.

(4) A comment about an SEIU presentation on another blog:

I am a progressive, supported Obama, BNF, DSSC, Al Franken and others with $$ this season - but I cannot support the EFCA. It just seems to be so anti-democratic. Why are we afraid of a secret ballot? Let people decide in private whether they want representation or not. The goal should not be more union members, the goal should be fair treatment for workers. While I admire much of Robert's work - his statement that the EFCA will "effectively restore the middle class..." is just over the top. Support the right to an election, support penalties for anti-union activities but do not support the EFCA.

(5) But then there are those who are ready to take to the streets if Mr. Obama backs off.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

If the EFCA passes and people are robbed of their right to secret ballot, that will declare to the whole world that this administration can be influenced by politics (I won't go so far as to say money, since I have no knowledge of that) as opposed to what is right and wrong. That would be a horrifying message to send.
Anyone who is not trying to pressure people into voting a certain way will not be afraid of a secret ballot.
As for the unions---what is their role in the failure of the big 3 automakers in Detroit who are now asking for billions of OUR dollars to bail them out, while the non-union manufacturers in the US (like Toyota and Honda) are doing just great? With happy, well-treated workers?
I'm not saying the unions did not have a useful role at one time, but in the global free market of the 21st century, that role needs to be re-examined. If people felt a need for the union, they wouldn't have to be lobbying so hard to pressure people into signing up. What is their motivation??? We shouldn't kid ourselves---it is their own greed for money and power, not any special interest in "protecting the little people" who really don't need their protection.

Anonymous said...

Paul, you may enjoy this joke: (PS I support President-elect Obama, but I still appreciate the joke's irony, even if it isn't really a true story.)

U.S. election P.S.

Those who wanted McCain to win will appreciate this little,
AMAZING but, TRUE story that was sent to me. My 20 yr old
niece works for a little insurance company in San Francisco.
This is an actual email the CFO of the company sent out to
all the employees.

Fellow Business Executives:
As the CFO of this business that employs 140 people, I have
resigned myself to the fact that Barack Obama is our next
President, and that our taxes and government fees will
increase in a BIG way. To compensate for these increases, I
figure that the Clients will have to see an increase in our
fees to them of about 8% but since we cannot increase our
fees right now due to the dismal state of our economy, we
will have to lay off six of our employees instead. This has
really been eating at me for a while, as we believe we are
family here and I didn't know how to choose who will
have to go. So, this is what I did. I strolled thru our
parking lot and found 8 Obama bumper stickers on our
employees' cars and have
decided these folks will be the first to be laid off. I
can't think of a more fair way to approach this problem.

These folks wanted change; I gave it to them. If you have a
better idea, let me know.

Sincerely,
Aaron Templeton
Providence Property & Casualty

L said...

The full caucus vote was 137-122:

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1108/15822.html

Paul Levy said...

Anon 11:08 --

I posted it, but sorry, I don't like it or what it stands for in the way of political philosophy. Also, it clearly could not be true. BTW, looking for more irony, conisder that the story is about a financial service company and what they have done for the last several years!

L --

Who voted "yes" and who voted "no"? That's the real point, right?

Anonymous said...

At this point in time, I would hope the unions main area of concern would be the preserve jobs and some of the gains they have made over the years in the auto industry.

Bankruptcy should be the last thing the unions support. With it would come the abrogation of their contracts. I would hope they focus on getting a fair deal for existing members than recruiting in a climate when jobs are disappearing rapidly.

But then again, Change to Win and the SEIU broke from the AFL-CIO (where the UAW still resides) over recruiting.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the guys joke about firing people who have Obama stickers hits pretty close to home when it comes to how unfair union elections are for workers: it's very common for workers to fear wearing a union button or sticker at work because they feel like they will be discriminated against by their employer.

It's a rational fear. The current process that business claims is "democratic" does very little to protect workers against discrimination. That kind of fear makes it impossible to have a free, fair debate about the pros and cons of forming a union. A secret ballot doesn't remedy that underlying flaw.

That's why comparing today's union elections to the Dingell or Lieberman elections is like comparing an apple to a dump truck.

Neither Dingell or Lieberman employ their fellow congressmen or Senators. They don't control their schedules or salaries. They can't compel their fellow elected officials to come to a meeting where they talk about how Henry Waxman just wants to turn back to regulations that aren't needed in the 21st century while they kick Waxman out of the Capitol if he tries to talk to an undecided represnative.

Paul Levy said...

And having a new system under which people can be intimidated into signing authorization cards creates a new kind of flaw, one that can never be protected against by an independent regulatory agency.

So there you have the fundamental issue.

Plus, it is inherently disrespectful of the workers who do not want a union -- or those who have not decided -- not to have a chance to discuss the issue with their colleagues and have it resolved in a secret ballot.

Unions have been created in thousands of companies under the current system of secret ballot elections, under both Republican and Democratic administrations. You don't like the way the Bush administration supervised the process? Obama is certain to have a more labor-sympathetic NLRB than Bush.

But this post is not about the merits of the proposal so much as about the political dilemma facing the new administration -- and their understandable silence about this issue now that the election is over.

Anonymous said...

The Employee Free Choice Act does include safeguards for workers who don't want to organize a union. If workers opposed to forming a union want to call the question through a secret ballot, just 30 percent of them need to sign a petition that triggers a ballot.

This feature preserves the secret ballot for situations where workers are genuinely divided but prevents employers from using a protracted and one-sided election process from stopping workers from organizing when a clear majority of them favor forming a union.

Union members have long raised concerns about the flaws of the current process, which was dramatically altered in 1947 by a conservative Congress, over Harry Truman's veto, with the Taft-Hartley Act. It's not about Bush versus Clinton or Obama. In fact, legislation very similar to the current Free Choice Act was nearly approved in 1977 under President Carter but was blocked by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Dixiecrats.

Paul Levy said...

Sounds a bit convoluted. So, while the union collects its authorization cards to bypass an election, other individuals -- on their own and with no established leadership or resources -- are supposed to get themselves organized to collect signatures on cards asking for an election. Fat chance.

But, you folks keep avoiding today's topic. How come the Obama team is silent on this matter now that the election is over?

Aron B said...

I imagine Obama's team is quiet because it's not one of Obama's priorities. He's clearly said that his priorities are 1) emergency financial action to stabilize the economy, 2) investment in energy, and 3) health care reform.

There's some good discussion of the issue from the other side at Ezra Klein's blog (ironically, just following his post reporting your Robot Surgeons post). I like his characterization that under current labor law, majority sign up (card check) is always an option in any union drive, it's just that it's up to the employer whether or not to accept the results or request a secret ballot. The ECFA seems to just switch this choice to the employees.

Barry Carol said...

If the card check should be (according to the union movement) an acceptable mechanism to form a union, shouldn’t workers also be able to use it (with employer help and leadership) to decertify an existing union? What’s good for the goose …..

Anonymous said...

Does this count?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVmQ4xxe388

Paul Levy said...

Nope, it was before the election.

Anonymous said...

I am getting increasingly annoyed with this discussion (more on that below), but to answer Paul's question about why Obama's administration is quiet on this matter (if they are; I haven't looked), I think it's because a) Obama is a pragmatist who looks at both sides of an issue before making a decision and b) as a previous commenter notes, he's got higher priorities right now.
As to looking at both sides of an issue, I find it annoying that we neutral observers trying to understand this issue (see comments on Paul's previous post "SEIU goes Googling") are only gradually getting the complete picture, as "for" and "against" posters present only the facts which support THEIR side of the issue.
So NOW I find out about the 30% who can ask for a secret ballot, even though I agree with Paul's observation that those 30% have no leadership (unless the employer leans on someone to start the petition?). It would seem this issue is not as simple as either side indicates.
So, now that it's clear that either type of election (card or secret ballot) will resemble an "election" held in a third world country, some out of the box thinking is in order. Like employers and unions alike pay into a fund to supply neutral representatives to supervise and coordinate the election process. Or something. Maybe our pragmatic President-elect is working on such a solution. It would certainly be better than arguing over who's being more unfair to whom.

nonlocal

Anonymous said...

On Obama's silece: you may not have noticed, but the economy is in free fall. Nobody cares about EFCA. McCain barely mentioned it either, presumably because his polling showed that people either liked EFCA or didn't care about it. The big TV blitz that business ran against Senate candidates on EFCA was a flop.

On the anti-union workers and leadership: There is nothing stopping antiunion groups from stepping in and trying to organize campaigns against forming unions. The Right to Work Committee has been active in organizing such campaigns in instances where majority signup agreements are in place. In other instances, local chambers of commerce have stepped in to organize antiunion campaigns. But the overall experience is far more democratic because workers aren't pressured by their employer to vote against a union -- they hear both sides of the argument and can voluntarily seek more information or go to pro/anti meetings if they choose.

Anonymous said...

I had a lot to write about the specifics of this, but ultimately, I think it boils down to this:

Two or four or ten years from now, do you want to look back at your blog and say, this is the issue that I chose to highlight at the beginning of the Obama administration?

(Really? As someone committed to transforming healthcare? As someone who understands energy and public works as well as you do? Really? EFCA?)

Let's try to find the places we agree, and together use at least those places as the first steps towards trying to maybe give our best shot at saving the country and the world from total ruin. Once we do that, maybe we can go back to the comfortable complacency of partisan warfare once we're a little more secure.

Paul Levy said...

Oh, yes, I feel very, very comfortable about raising this issue. I wouldn't have done so otherwise.

This, in my mind, is an issue of human rights and respect for workers, where people should stand up and say what they believe.

Closer to home, it is also an issue, in case you missed it, about egregious, misleading, and nasty behavior by the very same union that supports this bill.

You just can't separate a person's or an organization's behavior between the two forums.

Your approach would be to stand by and be silent and just "take it," Sorry, but that does not work. It never has.

Don't worry. I believe Mr. Obama is very sophisticated and can handle the controversy around this issue and is very, very aware of the potential for it to undermine all the good he is trying to do.

By the way, why aren't you writing to say that the union should stop spending millions of dollars characterizing employers as intimidating and mean-spirited people. And, saying the same about those in Congress who oppose the bill. Does the union fit into your category of comfortably complacent in partisan warfare?

By the way, too, you haven't identified yourself. What is about this issue or your comments that makes you unwilling to do so? All of my comments are signed.

If you have an answer to this interesting and difficult public policy problem, one that would bring people together, post it here or elesewhere and sign your name.