Baran: More to do to help workers

Now that we’ve finally elected a pro-worker president, progressives can take a moment to breathe a sigh of relief — but only a moment. Fortunately, President-elect Barack Obama supports the Employee Free Choice Act, the drastic overhaul of labor law that passed the House but stalled in the Senate last year. With the outcome in three critical Senate races still up in the air, and the need to reach 60 votes in favor of the bill to pass it, the act’s future remains uncertain.

Workers are currently subject to massive anti-union intimidation in their workplaces, which has only risen with the emergence of a multimillion-dollar union-busting consulting industry. Moreover, the current framework for employees to decide whether they want a union is unfair. The only mandatory process employers have to recognize is the National Labor Relations Board election. Workers can call for such an election, but it will not be held until at least 30 to 45 days after that, leaving employers and their consultants a tremendous window to intensify their intimidation leading up to a vote on union recognition. While numerous complaints and lawsuits have been filed with the NLRB over the past two decades to redress intimidation, the agency is so backlogged that it takes years to adjudicate these charges, with only nominal penalties, and with the damage already done. These problems with the current bureaucracy are ones EFCA would directly address.

The core of EFCA, however, requires employers to recognize majority signup processes, also known as card-check processes. Under majority-signup, a union is recognized as soon a majority of workers have signed cards applying for union membership. Currently employers can voluntarily recognize such agreements, but few do so. Yet of the new unions formed today, almost all are formed through majority-signup agreements with employers.

Some argue the NLRB process should be preserved because it contains a secret ballot, making it “more democratic.” Many conservative business groups ran ads in swing states this fall to this effect. EFCA, however, still allows employees to have an NLRB election if they so chose, while also giving them the option of majority signup. More importantly, in an NLRB election the result is decided only by who shows up, and not by a majority of workers. Moreover, poll after poll shows that a majority of workers in the United States today say they would join a union tomorrow if they could. Yet barely 11 percent of them are in unions, and union growth has slowed to a trickle. Given all this, which of these approaches, then, is more democratic?

The sooner American workers win back the right to use majority-signup processes to form unions, the better off we’ll all be. The history of the Great Depression suggests the vital importance of rebuilding the economic base of the working class, and there’s no more effective way to do this than by allowing workers to bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions.

While it would be thrilling if EFCA were to pass sometime early next year, we cannot count on this outcome. Employers can recognize their workers’ rights to form a union and agree to recognize majority-signup processes at any time. But they won’t make such moves of their own accord. They’ll have to be compelled to by those who can influence them.

As members of the Yale community, our sphere of influence includes a company you probably have not heard of: HEI Hotels & Resorts. HEI is a hotel owning and managing company whose business model consists of buying hotels, then dramatically worsening working conditions to pay workers as little as possible for as much work as possible. HEI currently owns and operates 31 hotels around the country, and they are, as you might have guessed, aggressively anti-union. HEI gets most of its capital through investments from university endowments, including that of Yale University, which has invested at least $120 million in HEI over the past few years. Though the company only started a few years ago, it is the fastest-growing hotel operator in the country.

Yale’s investment represents at least a 10 percent stake in HEI’s three most recent investment funds. Thus our university has enormous potential to better the lives of hotel workers around the country by pressuring HEI to accept majority sign-up agreements with UNITE HERE, the international hotel and restaurant workers union which our unions at Yale are a part of. Such a move could help lift thousands of workers out of poverty, making our university a force for social justice in this country.

Think it won’t happen? Think again. After all, President-elect Obama’s victory has shown us that major change is well within our reach.

Hugh Baran is a senior in Davenport College.


  • @ Hugh

    Don't worry.

    You will get your unions.

    But sadly there won't be any jobs left.


  • Anonymous

    George Patsourakos
    As a pro-worker advocate and supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act, President-elect Obama should convince Congress to pass this Act. Under the EFCA, employers must recognize a union as soon as a majority of workers have signed cards applying for union membership. Under the current system, establishing a union in a company may take many months -- even years. This excess of time is often used by employers to punish union supporters -- with firings, fewer hours, menial tasks, night shifts, etc. -- in an effort to prevent the union from being established. The EFCA would eliminate this intimidation by employers, since it would end the long delay that currently prevails when employees of a company want to establish a union!

  • Alex

    Hey Commenter #1,
    I completely disagree with you. Certainly, unions are not always perfect, but they do provide workers a powerful opportunity to earn decent wages, work normal hours, and live better lives because of it. For the workers in HEI-owned hotels, a union would mean an end to literally back-breaking labor in favor of hours and workloads that would be a) physically safe and b) self-defined. Unions allow workers the opportunity to have power over their own lives. May all workers who want to be unionized see it happen, and may the employee free choice act pass, speedily and in our day.

  • Anonymous

    maybe investment bankers should unionize, oh wait, can you unionize if you don't have a job?

  • Anonymous

    The best way to strengthen the depressed American economy is through unions, and the best way to create unions is by allowing and encouraging card-check. Unions don't have a monopoly on labor, and they didn't even at the height of their power decades ago.

  • #1

    You will simply reduce the number of jobs in the USA.

    With an increase in digitalization and globalization, jobs will continue to flee overseas:

    more favorable tax treatment

    less burdensome labor restrictions

    You are cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    Good luck in the unemployment line!

  • J R

    Hey #1, I hear you on the globalization front, but if you read the article it's about hotel workers. How do you outsource cleaning a hotel room in the US?

  • Spherical Cow

    What is so ironic, of course, is that if companies and management had not made it so difficult to unionize, if they had not tried desperately to intimidate workers from joining, then there would be little to no reason not to simply have elections, after a certain amount of discussion.

    Unfortunately, management throughout the country has proved itself usually incapable of accepting the right of empoyees to collectively seek a decent standard of living.

    The myth — and yes, it is a myth — that unions lead to jobs going over seas, is the same one perpetuated by those who claim that all minimum wage laws are anathema to a free society.

    A few reasons it is a myth:

    a) Many service jobs cannot be shipped overseas.

    b) Many companies want to remain in the U.S. to save on transportation and coordination costs.

    c) The most serious reason for capital flight over our generation will be because India, and other emerging world powers, have caught up and surpassed us in education.

    If we hope to keep good jobs at home, we must invest heavily in science, engineering, and computer science skills that will be necessary for the current wave of innovation. Again, unfortunately, the same people who make false claims about unions are usually the ones who think that education need not be a financial priority.

    These investments must be made now; otherwise, ironically, the technologies spurred by Obama's promised investments in new technologies will be put into practice — but elsewhere.

  • #1

    Unions support wage floors (minimum wages) which hurt immigrant workers (the maids I assume you are referring to)

  • '07

    Union organizers can and do intimidate too. The card check process is open to its own abuses. Just ask the grad students who didn't support GESO a few years back. Some had to deal with nighttime visits from the organizers on more than a few occasions.

    And to #8,
    In many if not most companies, employee's wages count for the lion's share of expenditures. If as you say companies like to stay in the U.S. to reduce shipping and coordinating costs, that only works as long as those costs are not directly offset by higher domestic wages (among other things like taxes, which Mr. Obama seems poised to raise incidentally). So I believe your point is only valid to an extent, and it will become less and less valid as wages go up and up. However, Toche on the service jobs point.

  • robert99

    Look at the problems at GM and then look at the situation at Toyota. One has strong union domination, the other not. When you are carrying large union imposed costs per car sold, it is difficult to be profitable. GM is not profitable. Toyota is. Still like what unions are doing?

  • Y'11

    @robert99, GM also designs bad cars. The gas guzzler plan, for example, was not a good one. That's really not unions' fault.

  • GRD98

    Ah, I recall with such fondness the GESO "card-check neutrality" goon squads coming to my apartment every night, shadowing me to the kaffe haus, playing "good cop, bad cop," night after night after night, just to get me to sign.

    Thuggishness? Intimidation? Oh, yeah: UNIONS got 'em! And here we are talking limp-wristed academics, not UAW brute!