As GESO and administrators continue their longstanding disagreements on graduate student unionization, the debate has become a referendum of sorts on the traditional process for recognizing unions.
Union leaders have criticized National Labor Relations Board-sponsored elections, while administrators say they are the standard recognition process for recognizing unions and the best way to determine whether there is support for a graduate student union. Unaffiliated experts came to different conclusions about the NLRB process, with a law student criticizing it and a professor of labor relations saying that the NLRB process, despite its flaws, is superior to card-count agreements.
Union leaders have said they want the Graduate Employees and Students Organization to be recognized through a card-count neutrality agreement. Under card-count neutrality, the University would agree to neither oppose nor support unionization, and to recognize a union if a majority of graduate students signed union cards.
University leaders have refused to agree to card-count neutrality, saying a secret ballot election by the NLRB is necessary to protect individual choice in the matter.
Union leaders have argued that they need card-count neutrality because NLRB elections are biased against unions.
“It is my view that the NLRB process runs counter to everything we’re fighting for on campus for workers rights,” said Local 34 President Laura Smith.
Locals 34 and 35 are the two largest recognized unions at Yale.
In an NLRB election, the process by which the University’s two largest unions gained recognized, workers can hold a vote on whether to unionize if at least 30 percent of the potential bargaining unit sign cards saying they want an election. Once the cards are submitted to the NLRB, workers can hold a secret ballot election and form a recognized union if a majority of voters select unionization.
Union leaders have said that the sometimes lengthy appeals of election results — or even the right to hold an election — allowed by the NLRB inherently favor employers over organizers trying to channel the momentum of a unionization drive into concrete results.
Union leaders also argue that, in an election held without neutrality, workers could be subjected to intimidation that might sway their decision in casting a ballot.
But University leaders, who have long opposed neutrality, maintain that a secret ballot process is necessary to protect all workers and ensure the union is achieved fairly.
“Secret ballot is the time-honored way of eliciting the preferences of individuals in a democracy,” Yale President Richard Levin said. “I don’t see how signing a card, which after all could very easily lend itself to pressure tactics, why that could be more democratic than closing the curtain and in private marking off a check in the appropriate square in a ballot. To me the secret ballot protects the individual far more.”
Joshua Civin LAW ’03, who has been researching the NLRB process for an upcoming report as part of the Workers’ Rights Project at Yale Law School, said inadequate penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights and the delays allowed through appeals of NLRB elections foster a hostile climate in workplaces. Civin said the problems of the NLRB in practice render it unfit for use.
Gary Chaison, a professor at Clark University in Boston who specializes in labor relations, said he believes the NLRB is not employer-centered. But he added that the laws guiding the process could be used to the advantage of employers wishing to discourage unionization by stalling or stopping organizing campaigns.
But Chaison added that many flaws of the NLRB process could be eliminated by having faster elections, and that the flaws themselves were not cause for rejecting the process altogether. Instead, he said, card-count neutrality sacrificed many of the virtues of the NLRB election process.
“The argument that’s used by the unions is an extreme argument, and that argument is that the law doesn’t work so don’t use it,” Chaison said. “Cards are never going to be as good as a secret ballot election. There’s no secrecy in it. Workers often sign cards just to get rid of the organizers, or so they can have an election and vote against the union.”
Chaison said nearly all union elections are held at the request — through signed cards — of more than half of the potential members, but that only half of those elections lead to union victories.
“The irony here is that although it is a method assumed to protect worker’s rights, I don’t think it fully protects worker’s rights,” Chaison said. “People will argue against that and say if you have a very strong anti-union employer, you have to have neutrality plus card count. But if you have a strong anti-union employer, there won’t be neutrality anyway.”