Thursday, November 06, 2008

Next step for labor in Washington

With a new administration and Congress in place, we can expect a strong push for a new law that would eliminate secret ballot elections during certification drives by unions. This is the hallmark of efforts by the SEIU, which has received commitments from the President-elect and the Congressional Democrats that they will push this bill.

There is only one problem: Americans believe in secret ballot elections. Indeed, the one held on November 4 once again validates the importance of this great institution.

The SEIU and Democrats will try to brand Republicans as "anti-union" when they oppose this legislation. If the Republicans maintain a filibuster-proof minority in the Senate, the bill will not proceed. But even if the Democrats end up with 60 votes in the Senate, "Blue dog" Democrats will not want their name attached to this bill in a roll-call vote on cloture.

William B. Gould IV, chairman of the NLRB under President Clinton, recognizes this political reality in a Slate article published earlier this year, noting "Secret ballots to resolve union representation are the way to go." He follows this up with his thoughts about a compromise on the certification process that he thinks would be broadly politically acceptable. I don't know enough to know whether his detailed suggestions are reasonable, but his general analysis is certainly cogent.

One of the many tests facing the new President is whether he prefers to fight a combative battle on this issue -- among all the others he is facing -- or whether he will try an approach that brings people together.

And a similar question is whether Andy Stern, head of the SEIU, will acknowledge that Americans and their Congressional representatives will be very uncomfortable with his proposal to eliminate elections and will say quietly to his friend the President-elect, "If you back off from your commitment to card-check as part of a bi-partisan deal, labor will still support you and the Congresspeople who vote with you."

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a critical juncture in the health care quality movement.
I am a physician who left a hospital because the SEIU's increasingly militant actions went unchecked by a new hospital administration. It became impossible to address process issues because the union required a union rep to be present at all process improvement meetings. They used the same language as Eye on BI- we were "trying to make health care a business". Their only approach to process improvement was addition of union staff. Union senority was the only acceptable criteria for hiring and incentives. Union leadership so intimidated workers that they did not dare speak up at process improvement meetings. Once the SEIU controlled jobs, workers attempting to improve processes by the Lean/Kaizen we had introduced were threatened with termination from their job for "showing union disloyalty for squeeling on their union brethren".

Paul Levy said...

Meanwhile, watch what labor leaders said in yesterday's Steven Greenhouse story in the New York Times:

"Union leaders had hoped that the Democrats would emerge on Tuesday with 60 seats in the Senate to prevent the Republicans from blocking the bill. A.F.L.-C.I.O. leaders nonetheless voiced optimism about the bill.

“The gains in Congress obviously increased our chances of passing the Employee Free Choice Act,” said Richard Trumka, the federation’s secretary-treasurer.

Mr. Trumka added: “There are an infinite number of strategies other than a straight-up vote where you need 60 votes to get passed. Each of them will have our full attention and full support at the appropriate time.”

As long as they don't think they need to compromise, they will push Obama to go in this direction. He will have to decide what works best for his Presidency, with all of the other issues facing him and the need to build coalitions on a variety of issues.

Anonymous said...

Watch your back Paul. As SEIU becomes empowered you increasingly will have a target on your back- precisely because your style flattens the hierarchy and thus renders the union irrelevant. Union leaders prefer CEO's who generate demand for what union leaders have to offer- rescue from despots in the work place. Your participatory leadership style undermines the union's reason for existence. Once ballots are open, the only thing that will be secret will be the strategy to unseat you at BIDMC. Rank and file like you, so attacks will strike at points of vulnerability, e.g. trip ups by your leadership team, wherever and whenever they happen, until a "patturn seems to appear". Most non-profit boards view themselves as liberal and enlightened, so they start with a position sympathetic to the union.
Patients will not be safe nor health care affordable if our health care system goes the way of the American auto industry, with quality and productivity taking a back seat to union control.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, like Obama doesn't have more important things to worry about right now, like Russia saber-rattling, Israel and Hamas at it again, economy, etc. He will have to be Solomon-like to get through this. In his shoes I would tell SEIU to wait their turn - maybe NEXT term.....

nonlocal

Anonymous said...

I'm confused about this bill---do they want to eliminate the elections entirely or just the "secret ballot" part? Either way, how can they call this an "Employee FREE CHOICE Act"??? And (excuse me for being dense) how does this act benefit the union? Does it allow them to ram themselves down the throats of the employees without giving them a choice? Thanks :-)

Anonymous said...

What a difference a landslide election makes.

I'm pleased to see that Mr. Levy is now urging us to listen to William Gould about employees' rights.

The article that Mr. Levy links to includes a very cogent overview of how deeply flawed the current election process is. Mr. Levy had previously argued that the process that Gould witheringly criticizes was fine and needed no changes.

I think folks should also keep in mind that there is a solidifying consensus within the Democratic Party that changes have to be made to give workers more say in the economy.

Former treasury secretary Robert Rubin, the dean of the Dems' pro-business centrist wing, and Jared Bernstein, an economist respected by the labor-liberal wing of the party, put it this way in an op-ed in the NY Times:

"Capital versus labor: Here again, for all their alleged friction, our dynamic and flexible capital and labor markets have combined to generate impressive productivity gains in recent years. The problem is that the benefits of this productivity growth have largely eluded working families. Though productivity grew by around 20 percent from 2000 to 2007, the real income of middle-class, working-age households has actually fallen $2,000, down 3 percent.

"One factor behind this outcome is the severely diminished bargaining power of many workers, and here the decline in union membership has played a key role. A true market economy should have true labor markets in which labor and business negotiate as peers. Many years ago, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued that collective bargaining was necessary so workers had the countervailing force they needed to bargain for their fair share of the growth they’re helping produce. To re-establish that force, workers should be allowed to choose to be unionized or not."

Not long ago, Rubin and Bernstein and their respective camps agreed about very little when it came to unions and workers.

Things have changed.

Paul Levy said...

Dear Anon 8:03,

Actually, if you refer back to my prior comments on Mr. Gould on Labor Day, I also pointed out that he did not support ending elections.

And, here, before you assume too much about what I meant, note that I wasn't commenting on his thoughts about workers' rights or particular changes to the NLRA so much as his thoughts on political strategy for the new President.

Workers currently have a choice about whether to be unionized or not. Your implication that they do not is simply wrong. You don't like the way that choice occurs. Most people, I think, believe in secret ballot elections.

So, to put it more directly, do you think Mr. Gould's recommendation to the new President is the way to go? Are you willing to give up the card-check idea in return for getting a bill with greater public support? Or putting it another way, are you willing to help the President get this issue behind him in a way that doesn't become a tremendous distraction from other important issues.

Braden said...

"But even if the Democrats end up with 60 votes in the Senate, "Blue dog" Democrats will not want their name attached to this bill in a roll-call vote on cloture."

What a delicious morsel of irony. The vote may be affected because it is not a secret ballot. Go figure.

Paul Levy said...

Excellent point! There was a similar kind of irony in a story during the Democratic convention written in August by John Ford:

Democrats and the Non-secret Ballot

DENVER -- Democrats narrowly avoided a major embarrassment before holding their abbreviated roll call of the states here on Wednesday night.

Politico.com reported that the Obama campaign was seriously considering letting delegates vote by secret ballot, the better to avoid intimidation and fear of reprisal from local party bosses. But the plan -- which was pushed on the Obama camp by supporters of Hillary Clinton -- was suddenly dropped when it was realized that a key plank of the Democratic Party platform backs a so-called "card check" provision being added to the nation's labor laws. Card check would effectively strip workers of the protection of secret ballots in union elections. Business groups and former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern oppose the measure on the grounds that it exposes workers to harassment and intimidation.

That was precisely the concern of Democratic delegates who wanted to cast a secret ballot vote on the convention floor. The Obama campaign thought seriously about accommodating them until it realized how such a naked contradiction to the party's stance on union balloting might look to voters and the media.