augusta free press news

A real free choice

George Waksmunski has seen it happen. “Workers are terrorized when they attempt to organize a union,” said Waksmunski, the national representative for UE Local 123 in Verona. “Bosses tell them from day one, You’re going to lose your job, the plant’s going to close, the union’s going to go on strike, you’ll get nothing, we won’t negotiate,” Waksmunski said. 

To Waksmunski and millions of labor supporters, the Employee Free Choice Act will level the playing field between workers and management by giving workers the ability to form a union by voting with their signatures on cards, then giving them a shot at binding arbitration that would without doubt put an end to protracted negotiations that can go on for years unabated right now.

But to hear EFCA foes tell it, the Act is a solution looking for a problem that in the end puts workers at risk by eliminating what the foes have been puffing up as the all-important secret ballot.

“The biggest thing about the Employee Free Choice Act is it eliminates the secret ballot,” said Ben Carter, the president and CEO of the Greater Augusta Chamber of Commerce, of which Augusta Free Press Publishing, the parent company of The New Dominion Magazine, is a member.

He’s only partially right on that. The Employee Free Choice Act as proposed actually gives employees the option to decide a secret-ballot election or a card-check election process, though Carter is correct to raise doubt into a secret-ballot election ever happening again if the EFCA were to be enacted as it has been put out for discussion. “Can you tell me that any union in its right mind is going to go with a secret-ballot election if it has the option to do card check?” Carter said.

Under current law, labor organizers must get 30 percent or more of a company’s employees to sign a card in support of the union. Organizers then send the petition to the National Labor Relations Board, which schedules a secret-ballot election within 40 days. That vote determines whether or not the union will be recognized.

The Employee Free Choice Act would give employees the option of foregoing the secret-ballot election if more than 50 percent of the employees sign the card. If an organizer can get a majority to sign the card and the NLRB approves the signatures, then the union is recognized.

To go back to Carter’s point, a group of employees seeking to unionize themselves would have incentive to skip the secret-ballot election in the form of the immediate recognition from the NLRB, which gets the clock rolling in the direction of a labor-management contract that much quicker.

They would also miss the 40-day interregnum in between the filing of the petition with the NLRB and the election that union leaders say is often abused by management entities that want to seek to prevent a union from being formed on their premises.

“What this is about is who chooses, once you have a majority saying they want a union, who chooses from that point on how the process will work,” said Jody Grogan, a retired local schoolteacher who is helping the Service Employees International Union with its Virginia Change That Works labor advocacy program.

“It’s disingenuous for big business or the local Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers or any of the big groups that are lining up against this to say, We’re interested in protecting the worker, when in the history of labor-management relations the protections for labor that have been put in place, the labor unions have had to fight for,” Grogan said.

“They’re saying they want to protect the workers from the arm-twisting and so on, but if you look at the history of labor-management relations, the huge preponderance of abuses have come from management, not the other way around,” Grogan said.

“It’s a red herring to say you’re going to take away the secret-ballot vote,” Waksmunski said. “People have to voluntarily give you that information to say they want a union. All we’re saying is, That card is your vote, if you’re willing to do that.

“What happens today if you get people to sign cards is a three-, six-, nine-month period, depending on how successful the company is in stalling the election process, so they can terrorize people inside the facility,” Waksmunski said.

Virginia has become a key political battleground with both of our Democratic United States senators, Jim Webb and Mark Warner, currently on the fence on the Employee Free Choice Act. Warner heard plenty from both sides at a town-hall meeting in Staunton in April, which he told me afterward was pretty much par for the course as far as the feedback he has been getting on the legislation recently.

“I’ve heard horror stories from business. I’ve heard horror stories from labor. I think the current bill has got challenges, issues around the ballot and so forth. But I think what you’ve got to end up with is something that allows workers to have that right where they’re not going to be coerced either by management or by labor,” said Warner, hedging when I pressed him for what he envisioned as the best idea for a solution.

“It’s a long way from the end of the process. Probably the best way to make sure is to keep your powder dry for a while and have those conversations confidentially,” Warner told me.


– Story by Chris Graham