Friday, November 21, 2008
Congress / Kotz / Politics
Will Obama’s Win Mean Big Gains for Nashville’s Unions?
by Pete Kotz
on Fri, Nov 21, 2008 at 5:37 AM
The situation is worse for employees leading the union drive. “They fire the most outspoken people in the campaign, and it scares the rest of the workers,” says Collier. And though the fired can appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, it often takes years to get a ruling, meaning companies can effectively take out a drive’s leadership until long after the vote is concluded.
Perhaps the biggest new rule is that companies will no longer be able to ignore unions. If a contract isn’t reached within 90 days of negotiating, it will automatically go before an arbitrator, instead of stretching out forever.
Groups like the Chamber of Commerce naturally object to the changes, but with a Democratic Congress and a new president, they’re probably out of luck. Barack Obama swept the industrial Midwestern states, where unions remain the largest force in the Democratic Party. Come January, they’ll be in Washington to make their demands, and card check will be at the top of the list. There’s no way Obama can ignore them without blowing up his coalition from Pennsylvania to Minnesota.
It was one of the least talked about issues of the election. It also may be one of the most transformative. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce considered it so dangerous it spent $30 million at the end of the campaign to stop Barack Obama. But within the next year, it will likely be coming to a workplace near you.
It’s called the card check system, and it may prove to be the rebirth of the American union movement, dramatically changing the way organizing drives are conducted.
Under current rules, union elections are held like conventional ones, via secret ballot. But card check allows unions to sign up members over weeks or months. Once they’ve signed 51 percent of an organizing unit—say, the janitors of an office cleaning company—the union is official. It may not sound like much of a change, but union leaders believe it will finally even the field for labor, which has been getting its ass kicked for more than 30 years running.
The problem with the current system is one of intimidation, says Doug Collier, president of the Service Employees International Union-Local 205 in Nashville. Since the Reagan era, non-unionized companies have forced their employees into group and one-on-one meetings, where the company warns them of the catastrophes of organized labor.
“Ninety-percent of workers under the current system are required to make mandatory meetings with employers,” Collier says. There they will listen to “threats of closing down the facility, moving to Mexico, having to take tests to see if their going to be a member of the union.” He’s also seen instances where companies were “following people home, surveilling employees to see if they’re talking to union organizers.”