A bill that would make it easier for unions to organize, including those at Yale-New Haven Hospital, is now making its way through Congress.
The Employee Free Choice Act — passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday — would allow unions to represent workers once a majority of employees sign union cards in a “card-check” process, thus replacing the current system of secret ballot elections that organizers criticize as being prone to intimidation by employers. The bill comes at a pivotal time in the relationship between Yale-New Haven hospital and the union, as the hospital maintains that unionization should be determined by a secret-ballot election, while union organizers say they will only settle for a card-check process similar to what the bill would require. Though the measure is bringing attention to the issue nationally, it is expected to meet fierce opposition from the Senate and the President and is unlikely to become law.
Under current law, unions can try organizing through a card-check procedure, but employers are not legally required to recognize the union even if every employee agrees to union representation. Instead, employers can force unions to request a secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.
Yale-New Haven and SEIU District 1199, the union that is attempting to organize 1,800 workers there, have argued over card-check and election procedures. But last March, both sides signed an election principles agreement that called for an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.
The election scheduled for Dec. 20-21 was canceled, however, after SEIU lodged more than 200 complaints against the hospital in early December. The union said coercive tactics, such as alleged mandatory meetings discussing the disadvantages of unionization, tainted the outcome of the election by intimidating workers and poisoning employees’ ability to choose freely.
“It’s become increasingly clear that a fair election at that hospital may be impossible,” union spokesman Bill Meyerson said days after the election was scheduled to occur.
SEIU District 1199 made that position official last week by withdrawing its petition for an election with the NLRB. Meyerson said he could no longer imagine any possible compromise that would include an election.
But hospital spokesman Vin Petrini spoke out against the union’s decision to pursue only a card check.
“It’s clear that the SEIU is attempting to unilaterally take away our employees’s right to vote on this,” he said.
Requiring card-check procedures under the Employee Free Choice Act would go a long way to helping unions reverse their falling membership numbers, said Adrienne Eaton, professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. She said employer campaigning, which sometimes intimidates workers into rejecting a union they otherwise want, tends to be reduced when card-check procedures are used.
Some Republicans in the House criticized the bill during floor debates Thursday, arguing that it would free up unions to coerce employees into signing union cards. But Eaton said her research refutes that argument. Union coercion can occur, she said, but is far less likely than employer intimidation.
“The employer has control over an employee’s economic future,” she said. “Coworkers, sure they can make a social work environment uncomfortable, but they don’t control someone’s economic future. It just doesn’t add up.”
But University President Richard Levin, who sits on the hospital’s Board of Trustees, recalled seeing that social pressure in action while in graduate school. Levin said he would not support a card-check process at the hospital, calling the procedure “fundamentally anti-democratic.”
The bill is expected to be filibustered in the Senate, Eaton said, and President George W. Bush plans to veto the bill if it passes Congress, the White House announced last week. It did not pass the House with the number of votes that would be needed to override a presidential veto.