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.