On Dec. 21, the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) approved rule changes that will help streamline the union election process. Historically, one of the biggest hurdles facing membership drives has been management's use of stalling tactics. Management knows that the more time it has to intimidate, flatter, threaten, cajole, and otherwise confound the workforce, the better its chances of keeping the union out.
Indeed, stalling has become their weapon of choice. Through the use of convoluted legalistic maneuvers, companies have been known to postpone union elections for months, even years, after employees have signed cards saying they wished to vote. Stories of management obstructionism are legion. A good example of an obstructionist campaign is that of California's central valley growers' response to the relatively new UFW (United Farm Workers), back in the 1970s.
The first thing the growers did was challenge the eligibility of every voter. Nothing wrong with that; nothing wrong with making sure everything is kosher when you're conducting an election. But management was aware that many of these pickers were migrants and transients, that many of them lived in work camps and makeshift compounds, and that verifying every single voter's legal residence was going to be a tedious and time-consuming process. But tedious and time-consuming was precisely what the growers hoped for.
After voter eligibility was confirmed, they began their sabotage campaign. Knowing that Mexicans are Roman Catholics, and that these honest, hard-working rural folk were socially conservative, they inundated them with virulent anti-union propaganda, claiming that organized labor's connection to the Democratic Party meant that their monthly union dues would be spent on building more abortion clinics, legalizing drugs and prostitution, and promoting homosexual marriages.
Is that where you want your hard-earned union dues to go?! they asked. To kill babies?! To encourage two men to become husband and wife?! The growers terrorized these decent, unsophisticated people with cultural horror stories. Nasty business. On the other hand, in the view of the professional union-busters hired by the companies, it was all in a day's work.
As to the NLRB's latest decision, there was no way management was going to go quietly into the night -- not on rule changes that gave labor more flexibility. This NLRB ruling is far from over. Union-management disputes at this altitude aren't like sporting events, where the losing team, disappointed as may be, crosses the field and exchanges gentlemanly handshakes with the winners. It doesn't work like that.
Here's the response from Katherine Lugar, EVP for public affairs at the Retail Industry Leaders Association: "This decision erodes employers' free speech and due process rights and opens the door to rushed elections that will deny employees access to critical information." Not only have business groups already portrayed the modest rule changes as a violation of the Bill of Rights and the 14th amendment, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the biggest lobbying group in the world, incidentally) has filed a federal lawsuit to prevent implementation.
In truth, the final draft isn't that radical. Basically, it boils down to prohibiting the company from engaging in frivolous stalling tactics -- tactics that would be immediately obvious to any pilgrim who took the time to examine them -- and giving the employees a fair shot at voting in a timely manner. The new rules are scheduled to take effect April 30, 2012.
A provision in one of the earlier drafts -- requiring the company to supply the union with employees' e-mails and phone numbers -- was removed from the final version. Business groups insisted it was purely a question of privacy, that while giving out mailing addresses was acceptable, supplying emails and phone numbers (even in this Electronic Age) was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. And they said that with a straight face.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.