The janitors are asking UNICCO to agree to recognize a union if a majority of the workers sign cards saying that that’s what they want. This is a perfectly legal method of union recognition and is called a majority sign-up card check recognition process (or some abbreviation thereof). But it only works if the employer, UNICCO in this case, agrees. UNICCO has not agreed and it favors another method of union recognition, a secret ballot election run by the federal National Labor Relations Board. UNICCO signifies its preference for this method by its slogan: "Let ‘em vote."
Isn’t an election preferrable to any other method? No. Democracy is based on free choice. Secret ballot elections are good only insofar as they promote freedom of choice (which they obviously do in many circumstances). In this case, however, they do not. Here are some reasons why NLRB elections are not preferrable to card check.
1) A recent academic study shows that workers are subject to a lot more intimidation by employers (and slightly more by pro-union forces) in NLRB elections than in card check. And there are many ways in which the mechanics of an NLRB election fall short of democratic standards. In particular, in an NRLB election, only the employer has access to exactly who and how many will vote; only the employer can hire or fire the voters, and raise or lower their pay; only the employer has unrestricted access to the voters, including the possibility of one-on-one anti-union meetings. By contrast, card check is usually accompanied by a declaration of neutrality by both the union and the employer.
2) Card check is more representative. In an NLRB election, the decision is made only by a majority those who vote. In card check, if a worker does not fill out a card, that is taken as a no vote. Hence card check requires a majority of all the workers to succeed.
3) Card check is actually the norm. The New York Times reports that last year, 70% of all private sector workers unionized were unionized by card check or related methods. UNICCO itself uses card check frequently. The SEIU estimates that of UNICCO’s 8,000 unionized employees, about 90% were unionized by card check or related process, only 10% by NLRB election. UNICCO puts the figure at 50%, but even on their figure, it can hardly be claimed that card check is unusual.
4) It is common for NLRB elections to be accompanied by huge delays. In many cases, after successful unionization votes in NLRB elections, it has taken up to five, six or even seven years before negotiations for a contract with the union began.
5) There is in congress a bill moving forward called the Employee Free Choice Act (S. 842 and H.R. 1696). If this bill becomes law, employers like UNICCO would be required to accept a successful card check process. The bill is currently co-sponsored by 40 senators and 200 representatives, from both parties.
6) The NLRB will not even hold an election until the existing unfair labor practice charges against UNICCO are resolved. There is no knowing when this will be.
7) 57% of the UNICCO employees at UM have said they want to be allowed to decide whether to unionize by the card check method.