First let me say that it is terrifically lame that I have fallen off the posting-every-week bandwagon. Sorry. I’ll try to get back on soon, but this semester is killing me. Somehow, I didn’t get as caught up as usual over the holiday break, and I’ve never recovered. Graduation is only 8 weeks away, though… Nevertheless, this post has been brewing in my head for the last few days, and I thought that I should go ahead and bang it out. Moreover, I’m really tired of having my most recent post be about Neti pots.
Given my progressive stand on most issues, one might expect me to fall into line and support the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). But I don’t. I think it’s terrifically undemocratic and a terrible idea. I think this mostly due to personal experience. Allow me to explain.
Early in my final year of graduate school, representatives of the now defunct Cornell Association of Student Employees – United Auto Workers (CASE-UAW) came into my office trying to get people in my office to sign cards in support of the unionization of Cornell graduate student employees. The organizers told my international student, non-native English speaking colleagues in no uncertain terms that signing a card did not indicate support for a union, only that one wished for a vote to be held on the issue. I read the card, though, and established that this was flatly, patently false. The card clearly stated that one wished to be a member of a bargaining unit and to be represented by CASE-UAW. I pointed this out to the organizers and (I found out later) was immediately branded “uncooperative” on their list of graduate students. From that point on, they never again approached me about their efforts, and they refused to talk to my office mates in my presence. This despite the fact that, at the time, I hadn’t really yet formed a strong opinion one way or the other on the issue.
A key provision of the EFCA is that it would make it possible to form a union based solely on card signing. The alternative, which is currently the law, is that employers can require a secret ballot election prior to the formation of the union. I know about these elections because one was ultimately held at Cornell. They are run by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They are true secret ballot elections.
There is a reason that secret ballot elections are the foundation of democratic societies. It’s because they are democratic. Card signing is not democratic, in my view, because there is no way to know the circumstances under which the card was signed. Like in my colleagues’ case, the card might have been signed under the influence of a lying union organizer. Or under threat, or promise. Cards can even be bought. A secret ballot, though, is secret. No matter how many external factors may have tried to influence your vote before the election, when you step into the voting booth you are free to vote your conscience. When you leave the booth, you (in theory) have no way to prove to anyone how you voted.
To briefly recount the rest of the story at Cornell: Unlike other universities, who had fought the unionization of graduate students tooth and nail, Cornell reached an agreement with CASE-UAW. (Other universities argued that graduate students had no right to unionize under federal and state laws.) Cornell agreed that they would recognize and bargain with CASE-UAW, with the proviso that CASE-UAW had to win a NLRB representation election. (This is exactly the provision of the law, allowing companies to require an election prior to union formation, that EFCA seeks to change.)
Believing, among other things, that CASE-UAW was not the right union for Cornell graduate students, several other graduate students and I formed a group called At What Cost? to oppose CASE-UAW in the NLRB representation election. CASE-UAW was defeated in a landslide. (Why on earth would Ivy League graduate students want to be represented by the UAW? I really can’t fathom it, even now.) I thought that I had told that story in some detail in the archives of the blog, but it appears that I haven’t — although I mentioned it several times back in 2002 when it was happening.
So, that is why I oppose the EFCA. I generally support unions; I think they have done great things for this country. I’m not even, in principle, opposed to graduate student unionization, although I think it’s a difficult issue. (The difficulty hinges on the fact that graduate students are usually both students and university employees.) But I don’t think that a secret ballot election is an abnormally high standard for the formation of representative body.