Congress to set unionization surge

Related video: "Employee Forced Choice Act"
More EFCA stories: herecard-check: here

Jack Figg said he doesn’t see the need for the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it dramatically easier for workers to unionize.

“If you’re in a sweatshop of the Boss Tweed days ... all that makes a lot of sense,” said Figg, spokesman for ATK Alliant Tech Systems, whose employees run the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, which has rejected employee unionization efforts three times. “That’s not where we are as a society.”

Related video: "Employee Forced Choice Act"

Labor organizers and advocates, however, said they see an opportunity to more easily form unions and avoid management tactics that dissuade unionization.

“The imbalance in the (current) law is terrific, and the Employee Free Choice Act is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Judy Ancel, director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Institute for Labor Studies.

EFCA, as it is written, would allow labor unions to form in a workplace without an employer knowing about it until the union is already formed and certified. It also would alter the manner in which union contract negotiations take place and increase fines against employers that engage in forbidden union-busting tactics.

Both sides agree that EFCA probably will pass in some form in 2009 now that Democrats have strengthened their majorities in Congress and won the White House.

“What employers have to realize now is there will be a version of EFCA,” said Tim Davis, managing partner of the Kansas City office of employment law firm Constangy Brooks & Smith LLP. “If they are not prepared in advance, unionization is going to grow significantly in the United States.”

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that 12.5 percent of private-sector employees belong to unions. The average in Missouri was 11.9 percent last year, and 7 percent of private-sector employees in Kansas were union members.

Those figures could increase with the passage of EFCA.

The legislation would allow union representation of workers if a simple majority of employees in a workplace sign a union card. Presently, employers are notified that a secret ballot election will take place once a union organizer collects signed union cards from 30 percent of the work force.

Critics say the new provision effectively eliminates the secret ballot vote and opens the door for union organizers to intimidate fence-sitters into opting for the union.

What’s more, they say, employers would not be notified when a unionization process was under way and thus would not have an opportunity to respond.

“Once the cards are signed under a card check, it won’t make a difference,” Davis said. “Because it is too late.”

EFCA proponents counter that card checks allow workers to outmaneuver employers that may try to suppress unionization.

“It should be that if a majority of workers want a union, you should be able to get a union,” Ancel said.

Supporters also hail a provision that would send union and employer negotiators to arbitration if contract negotiations stall. Such a move would eliminate protracted negotiations that can take years to resolve, they say.

Opponents say that putting matters in the hands of arbitrators, who may not understand the intricacies of a particular business, may beset a company with wage and benefit expectations that make it uncompetitive.

“The thing that’s really atrocious is you have to bring in an arbitrator, and he doesn’t have to understand your business or anyone else’s business,” said Tom Holden, director of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City.

Unionization efforts in the Kansas City area have yielded mixed results in recent years.

In late 2007, Nurses United Local 5126 successfully unionized the nursing staff at Centerpoint Hospital in Independence.

Months later, an effort by United Auto Workers Local 710 to form a union among card dealers at Argosy Casino failed.

Rick Klingenberg, union organizer for UAW Local 710, said he thought the effort to unionize those workers would have been successful had EFCA been in place at the time.

“Yeah, it would have been,” Klingenberg said. “(Casino management) pounded on the fears, and a lot of young people don’t understand labor unions.”

Lawyers representing company management are ramping up efforts not only to educate clients about EFCA but also to offer advice on how to prevent their employees from organizing.

Brian Christensen, of counsel with Bryan Cave LLP, said that in general, competitive wage and benefits packages and a management that is attuned to employee needs go far in diffusing an atmosphere that leads to unionization.

“The first thing I would encourage employers to do is to think about and listen to their employees. ... When employees go to a union, it’s usually because they feel powerless and are looking for help, and a good employer can take that away,” Christensen said.

Employee Free Choice Act

The main provisions of EFCA, as currently written, include:

• Allowing union representation of a workplace once a simple majority of employees sign union cards. Current law requires notification of a secret ballot election once 30 percent of employees sign a union card.

• If a union and an employer cannot reach a contract on their own once a union is certified, the negotiations go to arbitration.

• Increased penalties for employers found to improperly disrupt unionization efforts. Unions face no increased penalties for illegal tactics.


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