Today President Shalala sent a letter to the UM community, following on from a second lock-down of Ashe (though this time there were no protestors inside it). We would like to respond to a few of the things she says in that letter.
Once again, President Shalala asserts the neutrality of the university and wants everyone to let UNICCO and the SEIU sort things out themselves. At the same time, however, she clearly takes sides in the dispute by castigating the striking workers for preferring a card check recognition process to an NLRB election. Not only that, she implies that there is something undemocratic and underhand about the position taken by the workers and the union ("the SEIU want union recognition without a single ballot cast by any UNICCO workers who would be affected," "they have turned on the university in an attempt to bully us into forcing UNICCO into recognizing the union without an election"). What President Shalala fails to mention here is that the method of unionization called for by the union, a card check recognition process, is now the norm in the United States. According to the New York Times, 70% of all workers unionized last year were done so by a card check process, and not an election. President Shalala also fails to mention that, of UNICCO’s own 8,000 unionized employees, about 90% were unionized by card check or similar processes and only 10% by NLRB elections.
President Shalala goes on to say that she does "not believe the current debate between SEIU and UNICCO over a card check vs. a secret ballot election is worth jeopardizing the health of one student or one UNICCO worker." We too, of course, are very concerned over the health of both workers and students, but it is wrong to make it sound as if the issue they are striking over is not important. Secret ballots, as President Shalala has said elsewhere, may be at the heart of our democratic system, but they are not at the heart of democracy itself. The heart of democracy is free choice. For obvious reasons, secret ballots have proven themselves extremely useful as ways of allowing, promoting and preserving people’s free choice. But they are a means and not an end in themselves. And like any means, there may be circumstances in which they fail to promote their intended end.
What UM and UNICCO are offering the workers is not a secret ballot pure and simple, but a secret ballot administered by agencies and according to rules and regulations that will actually impede freedom of choice. For example, in an NLRB election (unlike in a congressional or presidential election), only one side, UNICCO, will even know exactly who and how many the voters are, only one side will have regular and constant access to the voters and be able to hire or fire them and raise or lower their pay, only one side will have the unrestricted ability to canvass the voters, and so on.
Card check processes have also been shown to involve less intimidation of workers by both employers and unions. This is particularly important since the NLRB has issued an unfair labor practice complaint against UNICCO (the labor law analog of indicting UNICCO for a crime) having found "reason to believe" that UNICCO has threatened, intimidated, interrogated and spied on pro-union workers on campus. It is also investigating the company for firing a leading union organizer on the eve of the strike vote and making numerous threats against striking workers. In fact, until these investigations are complete the NLRB simply will not hold an election, so UNICCO’s and the university’s call for one is somewhat empty at the moment.
For UM and UNICCO to keep harping on the phrases "secret ballot elections" and "let ‘em vote" is to mistake the means (in this case, the flawed means) for the end. Resistance to an electoral process that, owing to the facts of the case, impedes free choice instead of promoting it is not a process issue - it is a democracy issue. The workers are striking to protect their democratic rights. It is UM and UNICCO that are wedded to a particular system or process, regardless of how well it serves democratic ends.
The President also worries in her letter about "dangerous" outsiders on campus. These outsiders included, on Tuesday, members of the grassroots organization ACORN and on Wednesday, a handful of FIU students and concerned citizens from community. All these people are deeply affected by the issues currently roiling the university and surely have every right to make their peaceful voices heard. And does anyone attending events on campus need a letter of invitation now? When Congressman David Bonior visits on Friday 14th, will he be asked to leave for trespassing?
We believe that President Shalala could settle the strike with two simple public statements. First, she should say that workers should be allowed to exercise their democratic rights of free choice through the democratic method of their choosing. As we explained above, there is nothing underhand about the method they prefer and UNICCO uses it all the time. Secondly, she should reassure UNICCO that, if its workers unionize, it will not lose its contract with UM. With that reassurance, it would surely be prepared to go along with its practice elsewhere and accept a card check recognition process.