Pending law may aid union organizing

Labor unions have seen their strength and membership decline for several decades, but a proposed federal law that President-elect Obama has expressed support for could change that. As a percentage of the American workforce, union membership has declined from 34.7% in 1948 to 20.6% in 1980 to 7.9% in 2004. Unions have been more successful in the public and government sector, with 35.9% of the public

Labor unions have seen their strength and membership decline for several decades, but a proposed federal law that President-elect Obama has expressed support for could change that. As a percentage of the American workforce, union membership has declined from 34.7% in 1948 to 20.6% in 1980 to 7.9% in 2004. Unions have been more successful in the public and government sector, with 35.9% of the public workforce unionized in 2007 compared to 7.5% of the workforce in the private sector.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to establish a presence in workplaces, may have new life in the next Congress, and experts on both sides of the issue believe it could cause a dramatic shift in the labor movement. Union representatives maintain that the current secret ballot process allows employers to intimidate workers to reject unionization. Employers see things differently. In the time prior to the election, the employer is allowed within legal bounds to provide educational information to employees. Firings, threats and paying for an employee's “no” vote are among the “unfair labor practices” prohibited by the National Labor Relations Board that administers elections for union representation. Many employers believe intimidation and coercion are more likely to come from union organizers seeking to get the maximum number of workers to support unionization and that eliminating the secret ballot election would exacerbate that.

Employers wishing to remain union-free need to be especially alert considering the potential passage of the EFCA. It would amend the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier for unions to be recognized in the workplace. Currently, the normal process for unions becoming the bargaining representative in a nonunionized workplace is to get at least 30% of the workers to sign a petition, indicating they want to vote on the union, which is then followed by a secret ballot election. The EFCA would eliminate the secret ballot election and allow unions to be recognized if a majority, 51% or more, of the employees sign union authorization cards.

The EFCA would require employers to begin negotiating the first union contract within 10 days. Also, the EFCA requires that a federal arbitrator impose the terms of a contract for a two-year period if a contract is not agreed to within 120 days. That would mean that the employer's wage rates, health insurance and other benefits would be in the hands of an arbitrator with no vested interest in the success of the company.

The EFCA was passed in the House of Representatives in 2007, but stalled in the Senate. Given the recent election results, the bill is likely to pass in both houses of the next Congress. Also, President-elect Obama co-sponsored the EFCA and has promised to sign the act into law as President.

Why should I be concerned if the bill has not yet been signed into law?

Once signed, the union authorization cards are good for one year. Unions are expected to begin card signing campaigns now in anticipation of the EFCA becoming law early this year. Some employers may then discover that a majority of their employees have signed authorization cards, and they have only 10 days to prepare for bargaining with the union.

Five things you can do now

Reaffirm your organization's position with respect to unions and your firm belief that an outside third party is not necessary for effective employee relations and successful business operations.

Inform your employees about the EFCA and the implications of signing a union authorization card.

Train supervisors to recognize the warning signs of union organization and on what they should and should not do if there is an active union campaign.

Evaluate your organization's vulnerability for a union; consider conducting an employee opinion survey to measure the pulse of the workforce.

If not already in place, develop an in-house, open-door policy or complaint procedure to allow employees the opportunity to have their concerns addressed.

Consultants from SESCO, a professional human resource consulting services firm, are available to assist you with these measures, including union avoidance training for supervisors, administering opinion surveys and developing complaint procedures. Given the critical implications of the EFCA for employers, we encourage you to share this information with your business associates who may not be aware of this legislation.

Phil Richards is director of client services for Virginia-based human resources and employee relations consulting firm SESCO Management Consultants. He can be reached at 423-764-4127 or at [email protected].