Imagine it’s election season, but before registering to vote, you first have to vote for your right to register. That is, instead of being able to sign a registration sheet, you are confronted by a government-issued $2.2 million campaign telling you why participating in the democratic process is unnecessary and why you should vote to let the government decide things on its own. This is not something out of a George Orwell novel. It’s the situation currently unfolding for workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
The current controversy between the hospital administration and the District 1199 union is over the method by which workers should decide whether to unionize. The hospital maintains that the issue should be put to a vote. Theoretically, this sounds democratic enough: If a majority of workers decide in closed-ballot elections that they want a union, then the hospital will recognize their union. But like a participant in any good modern election, the hospital has also insisted that it has the right to campaign for the anti-union side.
Accordingly, in the weeks before last December’s election, the hospital invested over $2.2 million in consultants, meetings, posters and other paraphernalia detailing how the hospital’s generosity to workers made a union redundant and unnecessary. So what if some of the consultants intimidated workers, some of the meetings were illegal and some of the posters contained explicit lies, the hospital argued. It’s all part of the democratic process, and the hospital wanted to win.
The problem is that the hospital has an extremely superficial understanding of democracy. While an election may be the most visible component of a democracy, it is not the only component. Ask Saddam Hussein in 2003: Elections alone do not make a democracy. Rather, the essence of democratic self-government is the ability for someone to have a voice in the decisions being made in his or her name. That voice does not come in a single moment of choice on election day. It instead comes through the representational process, especially through representatives who speak with their constituents before speaking for them. So while elections may be the only aspect of democracy that most of us participate in, it is but one way by which citizens can represent their concerns to the established power.
And as voting is a vehicle by which American citizens can participate in government, unionizing is the only vehicle by which workers can participate in the administration of their hospital. Unions give workers the leverage they need to voice grievances effectively to the hospital administration and collectively bargain for more rights, increased pay or anything else. No matter how noble or generous an employer may be, without a union in place to hold him accountable, he functions like a sugar daddy. As easily as he gives out benefits and privileges to his workers, he can just as easily take them away.
Even if a union-authorization election on the surface seems fair, the way it actually functions is not democratic. It is the equivalent of having an election where the government campaigns against having representatives in Congress, or where it pays for a media blitz against your district being represented. Just as governments should not be able to campaign against its citizens’ right to vote or right to be represented in decision-making bodies that affect their lives, employers should not be able to campaign against their employees’ right to collectively bargain through a union.
A far fairer solution is what is known as a “card check”: if a majority of workers signs cards authorizing the creation of a union, then the employer should immediately recognize their union. Like registering to vote instead of voting to register, card checks render elections completely unnecessary, because they can determine whether a union is desired while the employer is forced to remain neutral.
In her report last Tuesday, arbitrator Margaret Kern acknowledged that a majority of the hospital’s 1,736 blue-collar workers had signed cards authorizing the creation of a union. District 1199, accordingly, has maintained that these signatures are enough to show that the workers want to unionize. Unfortunately, in what the hospital is citing as a victory, Kern denied that she had the authority as an arbitrator to order the hospital to recognize a union on these grounds.
Nevertheless, there is a bill currently before Congress that would make card checks the default method for recognizing a union, and the National Labor Relations Board is set to decide by December whether to issue a new card check for the hospital workers. A card check should be the only requirement for a union to organize. No one should have to vote before they can register. And if anyone in a so-called democracy wants the right to participate in the democratic process, no one should be able to campaign or intimidate them into voting away their rights.
Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.