Delicate Debate on Unionization

Some college leaders are nervous about bill that would help certain groups (but not T.A.'s) win collective bargaining rights.
March 20, 2007

A bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives that is seen as the top legislative priority for organized labor this year is attracting attention and some opposition from college leaders.

The bill would generally make it easier for unions to be formed at private employers, including private colleges. The legislation wouldn't affect who could unionize, so rulings by courts and the National Labor Relations Board that have stifled organizing of faculty members and graduate students at private institutions wouldn't be affected. But where organizing drives are permitted and active -- for example of custodial and clerical workers and of adjuncts -- the legislation would help unions.

The bill -- known as the Employee Free Choice Act -- would do two main things:

  • It would make it possible for workers seeking to unionize to be recognized as soon as a majority of potential union members have signed cards asking for representation. Currently, those cards are used to ask the NLRB to set up a formal election.
  • It would require mediation and arbitration when the union and employer are unable to reach a first contract after a union has been formed.

While the legislation may well pass the Senate, many expect President Bush to veto it and predict that it would be difficult to override such a veto, especially in the Senate. At the same time, with the Bush administration in a relatively weak position politically these days, some hope that the bill could become law this year.

Others see this year's debates as a preliminary fight on the issue, which could come back in a future administration that might be more concerned than the current one about support from organized labor. Looking ahead is also why some private university leaders have been nervous about the bill. Private universities have waged a strong -- and successful -- war against the unionization of their teaching assistants. If a future NLRB issues rulings more sympathetic to such a union drive, the law being sought by labor groups could then apply to those employees, too.

Several officials who represent or work for private universities said that there was nervousness about the bill, but also anxiety about opposing it in a prominent way. Private universities stated repeatedly during the battle over T.A. unions that they weren't against all unions, just those for graduate students, and the institutions don't want to be identified with other employer groups that are more actively opposing the bill. At other institutions, campus leaders are aware of strong student protest movements on campus in favor of the rights of custodial workers to unionize. Several officials who have been watching the legislation and who oppose it said that they didn't want to be quoted, but were happy that one higher education group had publicly come out against the bill.

That group is the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Josh Ulman, chief government relations officer for CUPA-HR, said that the group was conflicted about the legislation and might not have opposed it except for the provision that authorizes union recognition based on union cards signed by employees, rather than requiring a secret ballot election. "For any democracy, we feel it's important" to have a secret vote, he said. "Employees need to cast their votes in a private setting, without the knowledge of their employer, the union or their co-workers," Ulman said.

He also said that CUPA-HR had worries about the mandatory arbitration called for in the law. "We're concerned about terms of employment being forced on both the employer and employees by a government official, rather than rising organically out of negotiations," he said.

Mike Mauer, director of organizing for the American Association of University Professors, which is among the groups that have been organizing adjunct faculty members in recent years, said that while the AAUP has not taken a stand on the issue, he personally supports the legislation and thinks it would help organizing drives. He said that there have been "such severe restrictions" on organizing that a card majority system would greatly speed up the process and allow more adjunct faculty members to have unions.

Once a union is recognized, he said, the arbitration process would help adjunct faculty members win gains. First contracts -- not just in academe, but generally -- are notorious for taking a long time to negotiate. "If there is no time limit, the employer can just play it out," he said.

If the bill becomes law, the most immediate impact may be on union drives and contract talks on behalf of custodial workers. Union activists have been pushing hard to organize such workers, both those who work directly for universities and those who work for companies that universities hire for such services.

Renee Asher, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, which has been involved in several efforts to organize college employees, said that the concern about secret ballots is "the standard industry line used by those who don't want unions." Asher said that the problem with intimidation today comes after employees have turned in a majority of union cards and an election is scheduled. At that point, she said, it has become common for employers to scare employees about the impact of a union. The system called for in the bill "is how unions were formed for years," she said.

Asher said that higher education, when acting as an employer, has "a special responsibility" to promote good employment practices. If college leaders truly aren't hostile to unions, she said, they would embrace the bill. She noted that several universities have in fact changed policies recently to improve wages and benefits for custodial and maintenance workers -- a trend she applauded.

To those higher education leaders who fear the bill, if enacted, would lead to more unions, she said that the working conditions of the workers are the relevant factor. The reason more colleges have seen protests and organizing drives, she said, "is that they have employees making poverty wages and without health insurance."


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