Thursday, May 04, 2006

Rigged Elections and True Democracy in the Workplace

The following is an op-ed written by Professor Gordon Lafer for the Miami Herald. Since the Herald has not published it, we are publishing it here. Professor Lafer is at the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon and is a national authority on card check and NLRB elections. He is the author of Free and Fair, a study commissioned by American Rights at Work about how NLRB elections fall short of the standards of democracy we hold dear.

Last Friday, the University of Miami paid to run an ad in the Herald attacking janitors’ call for their union to be recognized based on signed statements from a majority of workers. The janitors’ union criticizes the way workplace elections are run by the federal Labor Board; criticizing elections, the janitors’ bosses say, is un-American.

At first glance, it seems like the ad must be right. When most people here about “union elections,” they assume they run the same way as elections for Congress or the President. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

The University of Miami janitors are part of a much bigger problem. Opinion surveys show that about 40 million American workers wish they had a union in their workplace. This desire is understandable ­ since workers with unions make about 30% more than their counterparts in the same type of job. But the chances of these employees realizing their desire is very small ­ because the “election” system is so highly stacked against workers.

When employees want to form a union in their workplace, they have to go through a process that none of the Founding Fathers would recognize as democratic. Instead, almost every aspect of workplace “elections” looks more like the discredited practices of rogue regimes abroad.

The starting point of any regular election is that both sides have equal access to the list of registered voters. But in a workplace election, while management can mail anti-union propaganda to workers for months, the union doesn’t even get a list of who the workers are until a few weeks before the vote. If we had elections for Congress where one candidate had access to the voter rolls for years and the other got it only in October, none of us would call that a “free and fair” contest.

But wait, it gets worse. Within the workplace, management is free to campaign against the union to every employee, every day, throughout the day; but union organizers are completely banned from the workplace. Furthermore, management can post anti-union newsletters and posters on bulletin boards and walls throughout the workplace ­ while enforcing a ban on pro-union notices.

One of the most outrageous practices is also one of the most common: forcing employees to participate in mass anti-union campaign rallies. Under federal law, employers can require workers to attend anti-union rallies. Not only are pro-union employees not given equal time, but they can be forced to attend on condition that they not say anything or ask any questions; employees who speak up despite this ban can be fired on the spot. Management can hold these forced meetings as often as it wants, up to the day before the vote.

In most union elections, supervisors are required to have repeated one-on-one confrontations with the individuals they oversee. Here, the person who has the most direct control over hiring and firing, promotion, raises, hours and duties, tells their subordinates in no uncertain terms why a union would be bad for them. The message is clear: if you ever want a raise, or a day off to take your kid to a doctor, you better not support the union.

Even “election day” itself takes place in the workplace ­ typically decked out with anti-union propaganda ­ and under the watchful eyes of managers. In 2003, former New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman led a Republican party delegation to observe elections in Cambodia. Whitman declared that the vote was not “free and fair,” in part because government-affiliated “village chiefs [sat] outside polling stations and check[ed] off voters as they entered and exited, providing a palpable sense they were being monitored despite casting a secret ballot.” Yet workers across the U.S. are subject to just this type of intimidation whenever they seek to establish a union.

Many of the tactics used to intimidate employees are legal. However, because federal labor law contains no possibility of punitive fines, prison, or any other type of sanction, employers break the law at will. Last year, approximately 15,000 Americans were illegally fired, suspended or otherwise financially punished for trying to form a union in their workplace. If federal elections were run with the same “Wild West” lawlessness as the workplace, the 2004 election would have seen 7.5 million voters fired, demoted or fined for backing the “wrong” candidate.

An election where one party gets preferred access to the voter list, dominates communications, forces all voters to attend its rallies, and fires voters for backing the opposition, is undemocratic and unAmerican.

Recently, labor unions have worked with employers to create alternative means for forming unions, often using local clergy or elected officials to certify that a majority of workers want the union.

University managers decry any such alternatives, seeking to condemn their employees to a rigged “election” process that none of us would accept in a campaign for county dog catcher. Shame on them.

In 2002, the State Department condemned elections in the Ukraine. Among the problems our government cited were that employees were pressured to support the ruling party; university administrators told students how to vote; and the ruling party dominated the media while restricting the opposition’s access to tv and billboards. Under the system that the University is promoting, all of these tactics are legal.

Anyone who is serious about workplace democracy has to start by insisting that we have at least as high standards for American workers as we do for voters abroad.


elizabeth said...

this is a very informative article.. the herald has again shown its true, anti union colors.

i wonder how many insightful letters/articles the herald rejected in the past months? i'm happy to contribute my own op ed to the blog if the herald editors reject it in the coming days..

jacob (in Durham) said...

What a shame that the Herald won't print this piece--its a really excellent exposition of how flawed the NLRB process is. Of course, it doesn't go into the details of how one side of the election can challenge the "district boundaries" (that is, the shape of the bargaining unit) or the way employers can tie up the result for ages, or the way that after a year employers can try to decertify the union...

Again, I want to emphasize how wonderful your victory is for all of us fighting for worker rights, and particuarly the rights of workers on university campuses.

Anonymous said...

Workplace Democracy? Sounds focus-group tested.

Hey how about classroom democracy where stundets get to vote on whether or not they should have to do any assignments the proffesor intends to assign?

Or how about students get to vote on whether to even have exams?

Lets even go so far as to have the students form a council to decide what elements of the professor's syllabus will be acceptable and what should be discarded.

elizabeth said...

dear anonymous,
actually, a syllabus is like a contract. if the student doesn't agree with the terms, they can drop the class the first week of the semester.

ps. professor is spelled with one 'f' and two 's's.

T said...

Anonymous's comparison makes no sense. His spelling also sucks. Is that linguistic democracy? Whatever; troll, probably.

T said...

Is there any way for you to change the settings so that you can only choose "blogger" or "other" for identity, rather than the rather useless anonymous?

fwj said...

Dear T,

No, there isn't.

Anonymous said...


maybe you should step back a foot or two and re-read the "Workplace Democracy" comment...

Anonymous said...

The fact that you make a big deal out of the spelling of professor the first time I mention it while I spelled it correctly the second time (clearly an oversight when I proof-read the post)... is why so many of you people suck so bad.

Secondly, those of us that peruse your little mutual admiration society here do so for amusement more than anything else so perhaps you might make an attempt at not taking yourselves so seriously. To most reasonable people you're all just very funny... and anachronistic.

Finally, its a little hard to take seriously the position that anonymous postings should be prohibited from someone who goes by the nom de guerre of 'T'. Like there's a big difference between posting anonymously and someone who posts with an assumed identity. It's kind of like symbolism over substance I think - you feel like you're a little bit superior to an anonymous poster because you use a title. But in the end you're just the same - hiding your true identity and all.

Those of us that post anonymous here do so because in the real world (as opposed to the one Elizabeth and Mr 'T' occupy) it really isn't practical to speak one's mind in a manner contrary to a professor's beliefs. That usually gets you a bad grade or some other form of psychological intimidation by those that have power over you. Certainly not by all professors and to the credit of many they have gone out of their way to accomodate all viewpoints on this entire affair, but...

Faculty on here will of course deny this, but there are many, many reports of this happening almost daily.

We're just not going to take that chance.

elizabeth said...

"suck so bad" for paying attention to grammar?
anonymous: in hindsight, it was a passive aggressive comment on my part. my apologies if i offended you. it was short-hand for what i was actually thinking, which was, "how clearly do you think out what you post?" when you don't bother to look at your spelling, all i can infer is that you didn't take a moment to think about your post either. my apologies for being caddy.

in a blogger's world, all anonymous post might as well be one person. that's why "T" suggests to sign your name--even a fake name-- that's how you establish identity in cyberspace. people can then engage in conversation with you.. rather than write you off as "anonymous."

as for your professors, it's too bad that you don't feel you can speak your mind. although you contradict yourself: which is it? are they accepting of diverse beliefs, or not? in my experience, good professors would respectfully disagree with you, and move on. if you actually have one that holds your beliefs against you and penalizes you with a low grade because of these beliefs, then it's clearly an injustice. my recommendation: file your grievance with the appropriate group, which at UM would be the honor council. and if YOU take a step back or two, you'll realize why many of us have backed this movement. everyone should have an avenue of recourse. that what unionization is about.

T said...

Dear student (or 'stundet'),

(1) A comment one person makes about your spelling is why "many of you people suck so bad"? If someone sucks because they criticize others, where does that leave you?

(2) If you are perusing this site for amusement, and you live in south Florida, I can only assume you are really bored and have not realized that YOU LIVE IN SOUTH FLORIDA. Go to the beach, man.

(3) Also, speak for yourself, please. You are not the voice of "most reasonable people." If you want to post something reasonable, that will speak for itself.

(4) Please actually read Elizabeth's post about taking on a name. It lets you write without fear, yet allows discussion to be focussed. Not doing so is a form of disrespect on your part. Maybe you don't feel you need to show any respect for others, but then you shouldn't complain about not receiving it yourself, should you?

(5) You wrote: "Like there's a big difference between posting anonymously and someone who posts with an assumed identity." There is; see point four.

(6) You wrote: "you feel like you're a little bit superior to an anonymous poster because you use a title." This is called projecting (i.e., your feelings, onto others).

(7) You wrote: "Faculty on here will of course deny this, but there are many, many reports of this happening almost daily." I'll believe it when I hear any evidence of this. Why don't you try to be relevant and provide some?

I won't write any anonymous contributor again. Show some minor creativity, folks. Call yourself student, call yourself stundet, call yourself Ishmael.

Anonymous said...

Without questioning the legitimacy of the charges of intimidation against management, the idea that the cure for that is to eliminate the secret ballot is absurd. Stop the practices that need to be stopped, but why does it make sense to compound that wrong with another one.

The secret ballot is not the problem it is one of the protections for voters, in this case working people as voters.

What is troubling about this is why union advocates would propose this?

Proponents of the bill point out in their testimony before Congress the US government often criticizes the elections in developing democracies where the ballot is secret but the process leading up to it is flawed.

That is true, but no one in those situations proposes getting rid of the secret ballow as Union leaders do here.

Shame on management for doing what it does, but sadly shame on unions for proposing this anti-democratic, anti-worker supposed remedy.

Anonymous said...

In many subjects the students exert some influence on their own education by asking the prof. to cover a topic. Grad students also influence profs. It might feel one-sided, but there's some feedback in there.

Likewise, a good workplace listens to its workers. Unions are just a way for workers to assert themselves, and to force some feedback into a system that resists it.