Thursday, March 8, 2007

Memo to Employers: Lose the Second Yacht

Photo Credit: Jared Rodriguez 
Why is Pace University making it so hard for Chris Williams to get a union contract? 
The U.S. House passed legislation last week that would level the playing field for employees trying to form a union—but judging by the reaction in the business community, you’d think the bill is the end of corporate freedom as we know it.

On March 1, the House voted 241–185 for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would establish stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union and during first-contract negotiations. It also would allow employees to form unions through a majority verification process, in which workers sign cards to indicate their support for a union.

In attacking the bill, Big Business has misleadingly insisted it would take away the secret ballot election process by which workers now form unions. But that argument is a red herring. First of all, Employee Free Choice Act doesn’t take away the secret ballot process. Workers will have a choice between the ballot process and majority verification.

Second, as currently run by the nation’s labor board, this management-controlled election process is anything but democratic. The long, drawn-out process gives management plenty of time to harass and intimidate workers—and let’s face it, how many people want to join a union if their employer threatens to fire them (which 25 percent of private-sector employers do, even though it is illegal)?

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich puts it this way:
A secret ballot sounds democratic, but workplaces aren’t democracies because employers have the power to hire and fire. That's where the potential for intimidation lies. And the only way around it is to go with a simple up-or-down vote.
There are many examples of how the so-called “election process” doesn’t work. Chris Williams, an adjunct physics professor at Pace University in New Jersey, shared his story with us at the AFL-CIO. In December 2003, Williams and a majority of his co-workers signed authorization cards saying they wanted to be represented by New York State United Teachers/AFT (NYSUT/AFT). Pace University's administration then went to enormous lengths to block them from winning recognition and a contract. (A majority of workers can sign authorization cards now—but employers are not required to recognize the union. The Employee Free Choice Act would fix that.) Why would Williams, a well-educated professional, want to join a union? Says Williams:
I would starve to death if I had to rely on my wages from Pace. I'd be homeless. The average pay for an adjunct for a three-credit course is just $2,500 for a 15-week course.
While a tenured professor might earn $100,000 per year, an adjunct faculty member in the next classroom with the same qualifications would earn subsistence pay of only $15,000 for the equivalent of a full-time workload. (What was that again from the Bush administration about lack of education behind the nation’s low-wage economy? We’ll address that canard in a future post.)

The adjunct faculty then tried the election process route of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). First, the university tried to delay the election. Then, after the election was held in spring 2004 and the adjunct faculty voted overwhelmingly for the union, the university came up with a bizarre legal argument that hundreds of adjunct faculty members should be excluded from the bargaining unit. It actually refused to include them in negotiations with the union. The director of NLRB's Region 2 found the disputed adjunct faculty members were part of the bargaining unit, and the five-member NLRB in Washington, D.C., rejected a request by the university to have the region's decision overturned. But even now, Pace is appealing the decision to the federal appeals court. That postpones the adjunct faculty's rights even longer. So a staggering two-and-a-half years of negotiations have passed and the adjunct faculty still has no contract.

That's why Williams, who sees firsthand the flaws in the current system, supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which provides for mediation and then arbitration if managements and unions can't work out a contract in 90 days.

So, given that most businesses are not interested in running their workplaces like a democracy (“How many people want a four-week vacation? Raise your hands”), we thinketh they doth protest too much that the bill would take away this nonexistent freedom.

Business interests also say workers would be “coerced” into joining a union through the majority verification process. That presumes most workers don’t want to join a union. That presumption is wrong. In fact, some 60 million U.S. workers say they would join a union if they could, based on research conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates in December 2006.

Commenting on the American Chronicle, Stephen Crockett, co-host of Democratic Talk Radio, points out how employer cries of intimidation are directed in the wrong direction.
The intimidation is almost entirely on the side of the companies. Companies are in a position of power over workers. Co-workers are simply not in a similar power situation. Only the company is really in the kind of power position to intimidate workers.
Most critically, the bill is about economic justice: Full-time workers in unions had median weekly earnings of $833 in 2006, compared with $642 for their nonunion counterparts, and are far more likely to have good health and retirement security. In March 2006, 80 percent of union workers in the private sector had jobs with employer-provided health insurance, compared with only 49 percent of nonunion workers. Union workers also are more likely to have retirement and short-term disability benefits.

And its here—in the dollars and cents—we find the real reason for employer opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. The past two decades have seen an unprecedented growth in compensation only for top executives and a dramatic increase in the ratio between the compensation of executives and their employees. The average CEO made 411 times the salary of the average worker in 2005. That’s up from 42 times in 1980—a tenfold increase. Meanwhile, average worker's pay increased to about $43,000 in 2004 from about $36,000 in 1980, an 0.8 percent a year increase—about 19 percent total increase—in inflation-adjusted terms.

The average CEO of a Standard & Poor's 500 company made $13.51 million in total compensation in 2005, according to an analysis by The Corporate Library. And that's just the annual take. Seems like what CEOs really fear about the Employee Free Choice Act is that by granting their workers family-supporting wages and health care and retirement security, they might have to forgo that second yacht.

Again, Robert Reich:
America's rising economic tide has been lifting executive yachts, but leaving most working people in leaky boats. Workers need more bargaining power. They should be allowed to form a union when a majority of them wants one. As simple as that.