The janitors and groundskeepers on strike at the University of Miami are protesting unfair labor practices (ULPs) by their employer UNICCO. Many of the alleged ULPs concern interference by UNICCO with the workers’ legally-protected rights to unionize.
The law provides two ways for workers to unionize. One is by an election run by the National Labor Relations Board. The other is by a card check process, in which workers sign cards, counted by a third party, saying that they want a union. Unlike NLRB elections, however, card check requires the employer to agree. UNICCO refuses to agree. Why? UNICCO now sports the slogan "Let ‘em vote," signifying its preference for an election over card check. Their slogan echoes President Shalala’s remarks in a letter to students at UM. She wrote that "the university simply could never take a position against a secret ballot procedure supervised by a federal government agency. Secret ballots are at the heart of our democratic system." In the face of UNICCO’s and UM’s concerted invocation of the rhetoric of democracy, it is important to be clear on a few points.
1) UNICCO itself has recognized card check processes in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. Of the just over 8,000 unionized UNICCO employees, about 90% were organized by card check or similar procedures, only 10% by elections. Nationwide, according to the New York Times, card check processes accounted for about 70% of all workers unionized last year. If UNICCO is now suggesting that there is something unfair about card check, it condemns itself.
2) The NLRB has issued a complaint (tantamount to an indictment in labor law) against UNICCO, charging the company with a variety of unfair labor practices in its operation at UM, including forcing workers to sign statements disavowing the union, threatening union supporters with reprisals and conducting illegal surveillance of pro-union meetings among workers. The NLRB will not conduct an election until these issues have been resolved. In such a tainted environment, the NLRB often itself calls for card check recognition. The voting that UM and UNICCO want cannot occur, precisely because of the unfair labor practices with which UNICCO is charged.
3) Studies show that employees face significantly more anti-union harassment from their employers and slightly more pressure from union organizers or co-workers in NLRB elections than in card check. In other words, card check processes leave workers freer all round from outside pressure.
4) NLRB elections are decided by a majority of the workers who vote. Card check requires a majority of all workers. It is therefore a more representative process than an NLRB election.
5) It can take years before the results of NLRB elections are finally implemented. At Avante at Boca Raton Hospital, workers voted for a union in an NLRB election at the beginning of 1997. After appeals and delays, it was not until 2003, nearly seven years later, that negotiations for a contract began.
Elections and secret ballots have been powerful tools in the march of democracy. But we should not become so wedded to the rhetoric of elections that we lose sight of the realities governing the current circumstances. 57% of the UNICCO employees at UM have said they want to be allowed to decide whether to unionize by the card check process. The process has been proven to be less open to abuse. UNICCO uses that process elsewhere. And the NLRB won’t even hold an election until the charges against UNICCO’s unfair labor practices have been settled.
The university has claimed neutrality but, in its rhetoric, it is in fact siding with UNICCO. And when all is said and done, UM is UNICCO’s employer. We call on the UM administration to exercise its moral authority as UNICCO’s employer and to tell UNICCO to follow its own practices elsewhere and let the workers decide whether to unionize by their preferred method.