Will Unions Clean Up in 2008 Elections?

Jim Gleeson |

Editor’s Note: This story was written prior to Hillary Clinton’s decision on Saturday to suspend her campaign and throw her support behind fellow Democrat Barack Obama.
Presidential candidates are talking big on foreign policy and the Middle East; budget deficits, taxation, government spending, healthcare, global warming and free trade, but saying little about pending legislation that would upend labor laws and greatly ease union organizing efforts.
The proposed laws should interest commercial laundries, uniform suppliers and drycleaners, who had 23 representation elections last year under the current system, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The likely candidates differ markedly on current labor laws and unions. Organized labor’s future will depend on who wins in November — the Republican (almost assuredly John McCain, R-Ariz.) or the Democrat (Barack Obama, D-Ill., or Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.). Let’s take a look at their positions on labor:REPUBLICAN
McCain has said little about unions, and less about our labor laws. “George W. Bush has been eight years of [union] anticorruption probes and more union financial disclosure,” writes Kimberley Strassel in her Wall Street Journal article, The Union Agenda (April 4, 2008).
It appears that a new Republican administration will do little to make union organizing easier. Perhaps as a result, labor unions are giving 89% of their financial support to Democratic candidates.DEMOCRAT
The AFL-CIO has OK’d $53 million to pay for 200,000 union workers to campaign for whichever Democratic candidate wins the nomination. Its affiliated unions have approved another $200 million for the same purpose. The National Education Association — the teachers’ union — will likewise spend $40-50 million, and the Service Workers Union will pony up $100 million for similar use.
Unions have already given more than $24 million over the past 18 months to candidates fighting for the presidential nomination. Of this, almost $22 million has gone to the Democrats — first to John Edwards of North Carolina, then Clinton and more lately Obama — according to a Federal Election Commission report in early March.
Perhaps because of that support, all three Democrats have strongly supported the “Employee Free Choice Act,” introduced in spring 2007, and the “Patriot Corporations of America Act,” introduced later the same year. Both laws would change the rules by which unions can organize private employers, including commercial laundries and uniform supply houses.THE EMPLOYEE FREE CHOICE ACT
This new law would require the NLRB, an independent federal agency, to “certify” a union as the workers’ collective bargaining agent if it obtains “union authorization” cards from at least 50% of a company’s employees in an “appropriate” bargaining unit, or if it requests an election. Companies must honor the choice, which would be made by the union. The law would eliminate the current secret-ballot elections in which employees now vote whether or not they want a union.
Once the union is certified, the union and company must bargain in good faith in an effort to reach an agreement. Nothing new there. But the law would require first-contract bargaining to start within 10 days of a union’s request, no matter what. If a first contract weren’t reached within 90 days, either side — the company or the union — could ask the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) to intervene. This would almost surely occur.
Today, first-contract negotiations are often lengthy. Depending upon the situation — the sophistication of the company, the number of employees, the complexity of the issues, and union and company demands — reaching a first agreement frequently takes months, because negotiations involve two-way “trade-offs” over items each side feels important.
Under the new law, if the FMCS couldn’t facilitate an agreement within 30 days, it would be required to appoint a mediator. While the rules the mediator must follow “will be determined later,” his findings would be mandatory and binding on all parties for a period of at least two years. In short, he would dictate the contract!
This proposed legislation upsets nearly 75 years of industrial democracy based on secret-ballot elections under the 1935 Wagner Act, which created the NLRB and our system of give-and-take collective bargaining aimed at compromise.HOW THE CURRENT LAW WORKS
Under current law, if more than 30% of the workers in a bargaining unit file union authorization cards with the NLRB, it orders an election. NLRB rules require the election to be held within 42 days of the filing, unless there are questions of voter eligibility — usually quickly settled.
For example, in fiscal year 2003, more than 92% of all initial representation petitions went to election within 56 days of a petition being filed. Employees vote whether they want union representation in elections strictly supervised by the NLRB. They cast their votes secretly in private voting booths.
Between the filing and election, unions and employers now campaign, using their free-speech rights to persuade workers how to vote. In reality, unions don’t ask for an election unless they have between 60% and 70% of the cards of a company’s employees; organizers know many workers change their minds during a campaign, after hearing both sides of the story.
The NLRB has lengthy rules governing union and company campaign conduct to balance the competing interests of employees, unions and employers. Labor and management have both often criticized this balance.
The NLRB then conducts the secret-ballot election. The winner is the side for which a majority of the votes has been cast. Either side can appeal an election to the NLRB, and then to the federal courts. In a few rare cases, this has taken years, due to the NLRB’s often-dilatory practices and overburdened judges.
Labor leaders denigrate secret-ballot elections, saying employees’ rights have been badly compromised by companies’ anti-union campaigns. Unions are opposed to the few, highly successful consultants many companies use, because the really good ones have won more than 95% of the many elections they manage for companies.
Private employers, on the other hand, support the existing law requiring secret-ballot elections. They oppose card checks, saying workers are often pressured by union organizers and pro-union fellow employees into signing cards during quick, surreptitious “signing blitzes” that prevent employers from explaining to workers the disadvantages of unions, or why unions are not in their best interests.
Since unionization has a great impact on the future of a uniform supplier or commercial laundry, both employers and unions try hard to win. But they try hard within the complex, ever-changing NLRB election rules governing elections. If one side feels the other has overstepped its bounds, it files objections, which the NLRB quickly investigates. The NLRB prosecutes employers or unions for conduct that interferes with employees’ free choice. It may order penalties, a new election or, in extreme cases, order an employer to recognize a union with no election.UNIONS HAVE LONG PURSUED ‘BIG GUYS’
Unions have long been attempting to organize the “big guys” in the uniform supply business.
Since they have been unable in most cases to talk employees into signing authorization cards, the Teamsters and UNITE HERE started a nationwide campaign in 2003 to organize industry giant Cintas (sales exceeding $10 billion). The unions call their effort “Uniform Justice” and persuaded Forbes Magazine to write a lengthy cat-scratch (Dirty Laundry, Dec. 11, 2006) deprecating the company.
The National Labor Committee has targeted ARAMARK, the second largest in uniform supply business ($12.4 billion in sales, much from its food service division). UNITE HERE and the Service Workers International Union (SEIU) sponsor that committee.
To make trouble for G&K Services, unions also blew the whistle on this much smaller company (sales of $736 million) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), resulting in formal complaints in California and Connecticut.WHAT PRUDENT LAUNDRIES AND UNIFORM SUPPLIERS ARE DOING NOW
In view of the threat of this proposed law, many uniform suppliers, commercial laundries and drycleaners who want to avoid unions are taking preventive action to remove the reasons why their workers might want a union.
Experts know the real reasons behind employee desires for unions aren’t money-based, but worker perceptions of favoritism (often ethnic and/or racial), unfair treatment, and management indifference to their feelings and emotions. Union leaders quickly capitalize upon these discontents, and often seek out ethnic leaders to support their drives.
The only way to deal with the realities of employee discontents is to identify and remedy them. This can best be done by an attitude assessment conducted by an independent expert — not a dinky paper-and-pencil employee survey questionnaire off the Internet. Since employees speak more openly to an outsider with no coercive power than to a member of management, independent employee relations specialists with the experience to understand what employees mean by what they say conduct the most effective assessments.
This is easier said than done, because many workers in commercial laundries and uniform suppliers are Hispanic and fluent only in Spanish. More importantly, they come from foreign backgrounds and societies where customs and attitudes differ greatly from ours. Knowledge of these is critical for understanding these workers’ attitudes. Lawyers often fail when trying to do this, because their specialty is legal grips and grapples, not the subtleties of understanding employee attitudes.
Most workers are afraid of retribution if they say anything critical face to face to management about supervisors and supervisory treatment, working conditions, alleged discriminatory treatment, inequitable pay differentials, incomprehensible benefits or frustrations with equipment that prevent them from doing their jobs efficiently. Any combination of these irritants often makes employees believe a union is needed for protection.
Employers wishing to stay union-free use these assessments regularly, because they know monitoring employee attitudes is critical. Assessments give employers an opportunity to identify and rectify the problems that cause workers to seek out unions in the first place.RECORD OF UNION WINS
Some question the need for changing our current system of industrial democracy.
During the last decade, unions have won an ever-greater percent of elections, being victorious in 59.2% of all 2007 representation elections, up from 48.9% in 1998, according to the NRLB. Most of these elections were in smaller companies. During this period, the number of representation elections has declined from 3,795 in Fiscal Year 1998 to 1,514 in FY 2007. What explains the decline in the number of elections, and the rising percent of union victories?
Unions blame astute consultants and management fear tactics on the drop in the number of elections. Employers point to a different set of circumstances to explain this decline:

  • Government laws and regulations — These include pro-safety, anti-discrimination (age, gender, race, etc.), unemployment insurance, Social Security for retirees, etc. They protect employees from the past abuses and insecurity that led to the rise of unionization in the 1930s, rendering the current need for union protection less pressing.
  • Better labor relations practices, especially in larger corporations — Most companies now respect seniority and make great efforts to treat employees fairly, rendering the need for unions moot, despite the efforts of labor to tar their targets with bad publicity in their national “corporate campaigns.” Many smaller companies and “package shop” drycleaners are easy targets, because they lack the expertise and resources of the industry’s giants, despite the fact knowledgeable consultants can provide it for a modest investment.
  • Modern compensation practices tying employee pay to performance in a way that boosts productivity and strengthens the labor/management bond within a company.
  • A growing awareness amongst the more perceptive commercial laundry and uniform service employees that union power has greatly been reduced. Employees — and their employers — live in a global economy. Little explanation is needed when uniform supply house workers see the uniforms have labels saying made in Malaysia, Mauritania or the Maldives, or drycleaning employees discover their customers’ garments come from the same far-off places.

Both Democratic candidates have also supported additional legislation called the Patriot Employer Act.
Less publicized than the former law, this one calls for “Patriot” employers to be neutral in any union organizing effort, which means there is no company campaigning should a union file a petition for an election, even under current laws!
Other provisions call for limiting executive pay while hiking employee pay levels, boosting company contributions to employee medical insurance, and making a minimum contribution of 5% of the total payroll to a portable pension fund for workers.
Yet another requirement is to have not been in violation of any federal regulations, including “those relating to … labor relations … or any other regulations to be specified by the Secretary of Commerce” — a rather open-ended mandate!
Patriot employers would receive a 5% tax rate reduction and preferential treatment for government contracts. “Non-patriot” companies would pay U.S. tax on profits earned at foreign subsidiaries, rather than the taxes of the host country where they were earned. Since the U.S. corporate tax rate is 35% — higher than most other countries’ — this would result in a large tax increase for what might be termed “unpatriotic” companies.RIGHT-TO-WORK LAW TO BE RESCINDED?
Unions have a long wish list. Although little has been said publicly, union leaders are hoping to repeal section 14(b), the right-to-work provision of the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act (which amended the original Wagner Act of 1935). Perennial candidate Ralph Nader has already advocated this.
The Taft-Hartley Act allows states to outlaw the “union shop” in which employees at unionized workplaces are required to be members of the union as a condition of employment.
Over the years, 22 states have used this provision to pass right-to-work laws. An employee cannot be compelled to join or pay the equivalent of dues to a union, nor can a worker be fired if he or she chooses not to join a union.
Right-to-work laws create the so-called “free riders” — nonunion employees who benefit from collective bargaining without paying union dues. This distinction reduces the amount of dues a union collects, making it less attractive for them to organize in these 22 states.
In right-to-work states as a whole, the only nonpartisan estimate of free riders — determined by professor Russell Sobel of West Virginia University by analyzing population surveys for the years 1989 and 1991 in the then 21 right-to-work states — ranges from 11% to 20%.TO EACH HIS OWN
Unions are necessary in a free society. In the 20th century, only totalitarian regimes have outlawed them, locking labor in a yoke of oppression. In America, unions began their rise during the Depression, in response to the antediluvian labor practices of the time. Unions reached their zenith in the early 1950s, when about 35% of employees in private industry were unionized.
Yet times change. Competition has changed with globalization of trade. American employers have changed, as have their practices. Many feel these changes have rendered unions unnecessary — witness the fact that unions now represent only about 7% of all employees in private industry.
Have unions similarly changed with the times?
Voters appear to have a clear-cut choice between the candidates this fall, at least insofar as their positions on labor. For executives of commercial laundries and uniform rental firms who wish to remain union-free, prudence dictates taking preventive action now to uncover and deal with their employees’ attitudes and possible discontents. For those not caring or who are overconfident, it’s business as usual.
It’s up to you.

About the author

Jim Gleeson

The Laundry Lounge


Jim Gleeson owns the Laundry Lounge in Niagara Fall, N.Y.


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