Organized Cleaning?

Woodruff Imberman, Ph.D. |

EVANSTON, Ill. — Legislation is now being introduced to change the rules by which unions can organize private employers — including those in the commercial laundry and drycleaning industries. The bill was scheduled for a vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives at the beginning of the month.
Called the Employee Free Choice Act by its supporters, the law would allow unions to organize a company’s workforce in two ways: Unions could choose either a “card check” or a traditional secret-ballot election under National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election rules. Drycleaners would have to honor the choice — a choice made by the union, not the employees.
The proposed law has 216 cosponsors in the House, mainly Democrats. “We certainly will be passing the card check — the Employee Free Choice Act,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in December, in spite of the strong opposition almost sure to come.How The Current Law Works
The new legislation upsets a lot of history. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) established a system of industrial democracy based on secret-ballot elections. Under the NRLA, elections allow employees to vote whether or not they wish to be represented by a union. The votes are supervised by the Federal NLRB.
If more than 30% of workers in a bargaining unit file signed “union authorization cards” with a local NLRB office, an election is ordered. The election must be held within 42 days of the filing, unless there is a question of voter eligibility; such questions are usually handled quickly. For example, in fiscal 2003, more than 92% of initial representation petitions went to election within 56 days of filing.
Between petition and election, unions and employers alike are allowed to campaign, using free-speech rights to try to persuade employees to vote for or against the union. The NLRB has a long list of rules governing union and company conduct for campaigning to balance the competing interests of employees, unions and employers.
The board then conducts the election, allowing workers to cast secret ballots in a vote supervised by NLRB agents. No campaigning is allowed by union or management within sight of the voting area, nor can supervisors and managers be nearby. The only people allowed to be there are NLRB field agents, designated employee observers and voters. The winner is the one for whom a majority of the votes has been cast. Either side can appeal the election to the NLRB, then to the Federal courts — a process that can sometimes take years.What Drycleaning Executives Want
Virtually all private employers wish to remain nonunion. They point to the high costs of negotiating labor contracts, restrictive union work rules that result in wasteful practices, and rigid contract provisions that prevent companies from reacting quickly to changing market conditions caused by nonunion and foreign competitors.
Companies dislike being forced into a “partnership” with what they see as antimanagement union leaders, who say they’re happy to “help run the business.” After all, many companies are still managed by the entrepreneurs who founded them, or by the managers they hired to run their businesses.What Drycleaning Executives Believe
Virtually all drycleaners, uniform suppliers and commercial laundries feel they treat their employees fairly, offer competitive wage-and-benefit packages compared to other businesses, and deal with employee complaints openly, honestly and quickly.
I’ve seen a number of drycleaning and uniform-services executives dumbfounded by registered letters from the NLRB saying that their employees signed cards authorizing a union to file an election petition. They can’t comprehend how union organizers could contact their employees, how employees could circulate authorization cards and organize a drive under their noses, or how supervisors and managers didn’t catch wind of the effort — much less why employees would want a union in the first place.The Reality
The widespread belief that promises of higher wages and benefits encourages employees to sign union cards is incorrect. The real causes of union sympathies among workers are perceptions of favoritism (often ethnic), unfair treatment and management indifference to workers’ feelings. Union leaders are quick to capitalize upon these feelings, and often seek out ethnic leaders to support their drives.
The first union to mix employee and civil rights was Local 1199 of the East Coast hospital workers’ union, now part of the Service Workers International Union. In 1969, Local 1199 hired Coretta Scott King, wife of slain civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, to help organize the workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
To emphasize a “Union Power, Soul Power” theme, Local 1199 had Mrs. King bring the campaign to a climax with a speech saying she considered herself a "Sister 1199er,” and that “my husband would have wanted you to vote for the union.” Since then, African-American leaders have identified strongly with unions.
Hispanics quickly followed, seizing upon real and perceived sentiments of mistreatment. These feelings were behind a highly successful wave of union organizing following the 1986 immigration amnesties. Union organizers have co-opted today’s Latino leaders and are again eagerly awaiting the chance to organize today’s Hispanic workers — some of whom are undocumented, and many of whom feel discriminated against.
In the drycleaning and laundry industries, Hispanic workers will account for more than 40% of all workers by 2010, according to Census Bureau estimates. (See “How to Manage Hispanic Employees Better,” American Drycleaner, May 2004, and “To Motivate, Communicate,” American Drycleaner, July 2005, for more information on Hispanic employment trends.)Maintaining A Union-Free Environment
The only way to deal with the realities of any discontentment that causes workers to seek out union representation is to identify those realities and remedy the problems.
You can do this best with an employee audit — not a simple questionnaire, but a survey done by a skilled interviewer who understands what employees mean. Employees will speak more openly to an outside interviewer with no power over them than they will to a member of management.
Workers often fear retribution, should they say anything critical about their supervisors and treatment, working conditions, alleged discriminatory treatment, inequitable pay, incomprehensible benefits, or frustrations with equipment and other working conditions that prevent them from doing their jobs as well as they would like. Any combination of these irritations can cause employees to seek outside union representation. (See “Improving Business Through An Employee Audit,” Fabricator, December 1998, and “What Your Employees Won’t Tell You,” Area Development, May 1998.)Debate over The Current Rules
Private employers tend to oppose the new legislation, supporting the existing law requiring secret-ballot elections. Employers say that workers are often pressured by union representatives and pro-union fellow employees into signing authorization cards, and that quick “card-check” unionization prevents them from offering their side of the story. And finally, the new card check would deny workers the right to secret-ballot elections.
“It is very telling that first up on the Democrats’ agenda after taking power is rolling back voting rights,” says Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), former Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. “Democrats and their big-labor bosses are seeking to steal workers’ rights to cast ballots in a private voting booth.”
Calling card checks unfair, Norwood says unions use physical force to make workers sign union authorization cards. Card-check opponents also say card-signing blitzes are conducted so quickly and surreptitiously by union organizers that employers have no chance to tell their workers about the disadvantages of joining a union.
On the other hand, labor leaders and their political supporters denigrate secret-ballot elections as a way to let employees decide if they want a union. They say employees’ organizational rights have been compromised by the aggressive anti-union campaigns companies mount against organizers.
Unions are also opposed to a few successful consultants some companies have used to defeat unions. Why union organizers would condemn a company for employing anti-union professionals to run campaigns is simple — several have excellent track records, winning over 95% of elections on behalf of management.Who's Right in The Current Debate?
Everybody agrees on one thing — that unionization among private employers has declined sharply since reaching a high of nearly 36% in 1953. Today, the unionization rate among private employers is about 7.8%, mostly in the heavy industries that originally organized in the 1930s — steel, auto manufacturing, shipbuilding, aerospace and construction.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unionization is higher among men than women; and highest among blacks, then whites, then Asians and finally, Hispanics. Union membership is highest among workers aged 45 to 64; lowest among those aged 16 to 24. These statistics reflect today’s realities and the efforts by unions to organize minorities, as well as yesterday’s realities—that most of today’s union members were organized long before antidiscrimination laws and other workplace regulations.
Union supporters say President Ronald Reagan’s 1980 firing of striking air-traffic controllers was a milestone in American attitudes toward unions, giving an official imprimatur to an anti-union action. With Reagan’s encouragement, supporters say, employers began “vicious” anti-union campaigns that often resulted in the termination of pro-union employees.
Pro-union supporters forget that as federal employees, air-traffic controllers were (and are) forbidden by law to strike. They also ignore the fact that when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization’s (PATCO) own employees tried to unionize, it committed “serious, pervasive, egregious and substantial” unfair labor practices in its efforts to defeat the unionization attempt, according to the NLRB.
Pro-company forces say that union efforts to get employees to sign union authorization cards often bring peer strong-arm tactics in local taverns, card-signing parties where pro-union employees forge the names of others, and widespread lies that union victory will inevitably lead to higher wages and benefits immediately. Pro-company supporters also say that a campaign is needed to give employees a full picture of corruption among union officials, union rules calling for exorbitant “initiation fees,” dues and other payments, and that unions make it harder for American companies to compete in world markets.Legal Precedents
The outcome of a union election often has an enormous impact on the future of a company and its employees. Employers and unions alike campaign to win, within the complex and ever-changing NLRB rules that balance the interests of all parties. Should one party feel the other overstepped its bounds, it files objections that the NLRB quickly investigates.
The NLRB has the authority to prosecute employers or unions who engage in conduct that interferes with employee free choice. It can order penalties, a new election or in extreme cases, order an employer to recognize the union without an election — if it determines that there was majority support for the union by checking authorization cards.
Despite occasional election misconduct and in an almost endless string of precedents, the Supreme Court, Appellate Courts and the NLRB have called secret-ballot elections “the most satisfactory — indeed the preferred — method of ascertaining whether a union has majority support.”
America has come a long way since the depths of the Depression, when unemployment was high, management practices were medieval, and drycleaners and commercial laundries — especially those with multiple locations and a central plant — had little competition from storefront cleaners and package plants. Then, unions were a necessary protection from autocracy.
Today, America is still the “Shining City on A Hill” — one that affirms man’s inalienable rights of free choice, democracy and self-determinism. Hopefully, the Solons of Capitol Hill will remember our heritage when they engage in the coming debate on the Employee Free Choice Act.

About the author

Woodruff Imberman, Ph.D.

Imberman & DeForest, Inc.


Woodruff Imberman, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Imberman & DeForest Inc., a management consultancy based in Evanston, Ill. He has written several articles for American Drycleaner over the years on employee productivity, employee motivation and supervisory training. For more information, e-mail Imberman at [email protected] or call him at 847-733-0071.


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