Monday, November 06, 2006

Look for the union label

The gubernatorial election will be over tomorrow, so look for an increase in organizing activities here in Boston. The SEIU was an active participant in the elections, supporting some candidates with money, time, and effort.

On the issue we have covered in a posting below, both Deval Patrick and Kerry Healy are on record in favor of elections and said they would not support efforts to substitute a "card check" form of union certification. So, it is unlikely that this tactic will be pursued. But watch closely, and let's see if the union changes the debate slightly. Perhaps now it will be in favor of elections, but not the form of election carried out under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board. Here is an example of arguments being used in an organizing campaign in Chicago.

Look for the union, too, to cite papers and articles from selected academic think tanks, which may point to successful management-labor partnerships at other hospitals. Of course, that is not the issue, is it? There are both successful and unsuccessful management-labor partnerships in both union and non-union environments. The issue here is the process by which workers get to choose whether they want a union or not.

Finally, if all else fails, look for aggressive tactics to discredit the management and the boards of hospitals who don't give in. All of sudden, the hospitals you have trusted to provide high quality care to all people will be pictured as having low standards, not caring about poor people or minorities, abusive of their workers, wasting federal research dollars, or worse. Trustees -- those generous unpaid volunteer lay leaders -- will find themselves publicly characterized as unworthy of supervising non-profit hospitals.

I can understand why a union might want to change the rules of the game to improve its odds of success. Will hospitals in the state accede to this, in response to pressure from the union and several of their friends in elected positions?


Richard Wittrup said...

The best defense against this new strategy of mounting public attacks on the employer is to have a clean record. As a wise colleague once advised, if you are doing something that won't stand public scrutiny, either fix it or quit.

Richard Wittrup

Anonymous said...

How can an election be fair if one side (the hospital management) has unfettered access to the voters whenever it wants, while the other side (the pro-union workers) access to undecided voters is much more limited.

Is it really a fair election if one side (hospital adminstration) can require staff to attend its campaign meetings, while the other side can't?

Anonymous said...

Actually, to characterize the union's access as "much more limited" is not accurate. While federal law does not permit the union to have organizing activities in certain places and during certain times during work hours -- for example, during working hours in areas where patients are being cared for -- pro-union workers have the right to talk with their colleagues in many situations at the workplace.

Also, unlike the hospital, the union is permitted to visit workers at home and in other off-site locations. Under these rules, unions can be effective in getting authorization cards signed and in winning elections.

You seem not to understand, too, that if management appears unfair or heavy-handed, it is even more likely to drive workers to vote for the union. Ultimately, it is what happens in a secret ballot that determines the result.

The bigger point is that Congress considered all of these aspects when it passed the National Labor Relations Act. It drew a balance between the rights and responsibilities of both groups.

What is troubling about the current situation is that the union attempts to put pressure on hospitals -- by denigrating their reputation and that of their volunteer trustees -- to bypass the thoughtfully considered processes that have been in place for years under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Anonymous said...


I think your argument that pro-union workers have just as much access to their coworkers do is breathtaking disingenous.

You say that pro-union staff have the right to talk to co-workers in "many" situations. But do they have the right to require all of their co-workers to watch an anti-union video? No. Do they have the right to require their coworkers to attent a powerpoint presentation urging them to vote no? No. But you have that right, and that makes a huge difference. The right to have a brief chat during a break (which is what pro-union employees have) pales in comparison to your ability to require your employees to sit through as many anti-union meetings as you direct them to.

Your argument that your meetings are evened out by home visits is likewise unconvincing. In case you haven't noticed, the door-to-door salesman is extinct. Why? Because Americans dislike having somebody knock on their door to talk to us about just about anything. Nor do we like getting calls at home. (Did you notice how popular the "do not call" registry is?)

By giving you so much more access to the voters -- your employees -- the NLRB rules allow for elections only in the sense that Soviet bloc elections used to allow "fair" elections.

It's appalling that you're trying to pose a defender of employee freedom with such misleading arguments.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you took the time to write. If anything is appalling, it is that you compare the system setup by the U.S. Congress with that of Soviet style elections. I have more respect for the work of generations of our elected representatives. I may not always agree with the results of Congressional actions, but I do not try to bypass the intent of the laws so derived.

We clearly disagree on this point. Please consider that your remedy is with the Congress, not with impugning the reputation or motives of those who disagree.

Anonymous said...


You're correct -- I probably overstated things by comparing the NLRB process to a Soviet style election. The flaws of the NLRB process make these elections more like an election in slightly more free yet still quite autocratic state.

If Jimmy Carter and UN observers witnessed an election where one side was requiring citizens to attend its rallies and campaign events (as employers are permitted to under the NLRB process) and the other side's access to voters was much more limited, they would raise concerns about the fairness of the election, and rightly so.

As to remedies, it's perfectly legal for an employer to agree to modify these rules to create a fairer process -- Congress indeed does permit this.

And as you know, there is zero chance that President Bush will allow any changes to the NLRB process while he holds the veto. Hospital staff who advocate for a fairer system aren't, as you imply, attempting to ignore the intent of Congress. Rather, they're urging for improvements that are legal and pragmatic instead of waiting for a political reform that certainly won't occur for years. Given that political reality, your call for seeking a remedy with the Congress is actually a call to maintain a flawed process for the forseeable future.

Going forward, I hope you'll realize that advocating for a fair election isn't about circumventing a traditional process, as you've argued earlier, but is motivated over genuine concerns -- some of which I stated above -- that the process as it now stands stacks the deck against a real and fair dialogue.

This blog is smart, informative, and enlightening. For that reason, it is especially disappointing that your views on this issue are somewhat blinkered and shortsighted. Health care is better off -- patient care is ultimately strengthened -- when staff have the freedom to decide whether they want to form their own organization.


Anonymous said...

I don't see this is an issue of Republican versus Democratic policies: The system has been in place under both parties' leadership in the executive and legislative branches. Perhaps it has not been changed because a majority are not interested in changing it because they think that it is indeed fair.

Anonymous said...


[Before I respond, I can't help but notice that you won't provide any comment on a key that I've restated several times, so to be sure I'll put the question to you once more: do you honestly think that the NLRB process is fair if it allows one side (hospital adminstration) to require employees/voters to hear your arguments but limits pro-union staff to far more inferior opportunities to discuss the issues with their coworkers?]

Moving on...

I think that your confidence that an apparent bipartisan consensus on this issue must therefore mean that it's perfectly okay to cramp American workers' freedom in this manner is becoming rapidly obsolescent.

Not long ago, the Democratic Leadership Council -- the resolutely pro-business wing of the Democratic Party -- raised many eyebrows when it agreed that the current NLRB process for forming unions is irretrievably flawed. Indeed, the DLC endorsed the "majority signup" process that you seem to reject out of hand.

While free market ideologues within the Republican Party (you know: the sort who would prefer to eliminate nonprofit healthcare in order to allow corporations to take control of this vital service) remains four square in favor of limiting working Americans' freedom to choose whether to form a union, the Democratic Party is becoming surprisingly united on this issue.

What are your thoughts about these rapidly shifting positions on this this issue?


Anonymous said...

Gee, I didn't realize I was being cross-examined. :)

I don't want to be repetitive, but let me try once more. I don't agree that the union has "far more inferior" options at its disposal. The law gives each side certain rights, responsibilities, and also limitations. I think it is fair. That does not mean that all employers will choose to use all the approaches allowed under the law. To quote myself, "You seem not to understand, too, that if management appears unfair or heavy-handed, it is even more likely to drive workers to vote for the union. Ultimately, it is what happens in a secret ballot that determines the result."

I could ask you a similar question: Do you think it is fair for a union to publicly denigrate the reputation of a hospital and its volunteer trustees if they disgree with the union's position on the process for an election?

On your final question, I don't know if there are really "rapidly shifting" positions on these issues. I do believe that this is not a simple question of Republican versus Democratic views.

It has been great chatting with you. I wonder if anyone else out there wants to join in.

Anonymous said...

Just a few days ago, Albert said that "seeking a remedy with the Congress is actually a call to maintain a flawed process for the forseeable future". Today, a full page ad appears in the NY Times -- sponsored by the SEIU and other unions -- calling on Congress to pass legislation to give people "the freedom to join together in unions." I guess the union leaders disagreed with Albert. :))

Of course, we all know that this right already exists. As noted in Wikepedia, "The National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) is a 1935 United States federal law that protects the rights of most workers in the private sector to organize labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining, and to take part in strikes and other forms of concerted activity in support of their demands." The webpage gives tons of additional information about later amendments to the NLRA that further refined the rights and responsiblities of both unions and employers.

So, let's be clear. The unions are not asking for "the freedom to join together in unions." If you look through this rhetoric, you see that they are really asking for a change in the law to make it easier for unions to be created. It will be fascinating and instructive to us all as we watch this issue make its way through the Congress. We will ultimately see if a majority agrees with the unions' proposals.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the so-called "card check" approach is the right way to go either. This would be too open to intimidation, in my opinion, resulting in coercing people to sign union authorization cards. Unions are perfectly free to make their pitch at off-site meetings. They can offer food and/or entertainment to induce workers to attend the meeting. Bottom line: the existing law is reasonable.

I also think that unions have a lot to answer for in often not knowing when to fight and when to back off. How many jobs have they killed through heavy handed tactics that won short term wage and benefit increases but priced the employer's product out of the market? Just look at the history of the steel, coal mining, railroad, airline and, more recently, the domestic auto industry.

Most hospitals make little or no money today despite high and rapidly rising rates. The system is unsustainable in its current form. Does anyone really think that adding union greed and monopoly power to the mix will be helpful? I don't.

Anonymous said...

The union can offer refreshments to entice voters to attend an information meeting, but can it require voters to attend? No. This is not a small difference.

Indeed, Phillip Wilson, an expert at "union avoidance" campaigns, argues that these "captive audience" meetings are crucial in any employer's campaign to put pressure on workers to vote against forming a union:

"This couldn't be more simple: if you hope to win your NLRB election, you must conduct a minimum of 5 captive audience meetings.

Both union-sponsored research and our own vast experience conclude conclusively that the odds of a company victory increase with each captive audience meeeting held. Up to 5 meetings the effect of each meeting is dramatic."

(See Wilson's full comment at