Union recognition ballots: the US experience

November 24, 2006

Among the proposals included in the Australian Council of Trade Unions' industrial relations legislation policy, adopted at its October conference, were provisions for unions to be able to hold elections to win recognition in workplaces where the boss refuses to bargain with them. These ballots are aimed at addressing the lack of a mechanism whereby unions can make an employer negotiate a collective agreement for workers. Such ballots have been a feature of the US industrial relations system for over 70 years.

Union recognition ballots were introduced in the US in 1935, in the wake of the mass labour upsurge that began in 1934. Prior to their introduction, employers had traditionally countered organising campaigns though massive repression using private security guards, police and the National Guard. In 1934, thousands of workers in Minnesota, San Francisco, Toledo and across US coalfields fought pitched street battles as part of a series of general strikes that won union recognition and significant improvements in working conditions.

Faced with an increasingly confident working class inspired by these victories, the Roosevelt administration introduced a National Labor Review Board (NLRB) provision for union recognition to blunt the rising-tide of union struggles. In 1947, the Truman administration passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed for derecognition ballots in already-organised workplaces.

During their first 30 years, the ballots played a role in helping the growth of the US union movement. During the post-war boom, US companies were able to afford regular pay rises and improvements in working conditions for the core of unions' membership in the old industrial heartland of the north-east and mid-west.

In a period of rising profits, capital was happy to negotiate with unions. But the sharp economic crisis in the world economy and the boom's end saw employers begin an aggressive campaign to strip wages and conditions that unions had won, by actively attempting to keep the US union-free.

NLRB recognition and derecognition elections have become the central mechanism through which US bosses have attempted to keep themselves union-free or rid themselves of a union presence. In the November 5, 2005, In These Times Christopher Hayes wrote that 75% of US employers' contract outside union-busters to help run their campaigns to defeat ballots. The organisations employ a range of tactics to undermine organising efforts and intimidate workers. These include:

•shifting known anti-union workers into workplaces that are holding ballots;

•holding closed meetings where management shows videos about workplaces that have closed-down after being unionised;

•sacking and/or transferring out known union activists;

•holding one-on-one interviews with workers to intimidate them into not joining unions.

The most notorious US union-busting company is retail giant Wal-Mart, which circulates guides to its store managers about how to identify and respond to attempts by workers to organise. Wal-Mart's determination to remain union-free can be seen from its response when workers win ballots in its stores.

In 2000, when butchers in Jacksonville, Texas, voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers, Wal-Mart responded by announcing that henceforth it would sell only pre-cut meat in all of its supercentres, fired four of the union supporters and transferred the rest into other divisions (the action was ruled illegal by the NLRB three years later). When workers in Quebec successfully organised their store, Wal-Mart closed the entire store.

The impact of these actions has been a decline in recognition ballots. Despite expending millions of dollars on organising new workers — the AFL-CIO union federation alone has an organising budget of US$10 million — in 2002 US unions won 54% of ballots held, with 78,284 joining unions as a consequence of the vote. Eighty-thousand workers — just 0.1% of the US work force — are being organised into unions through ballots each year and only 9% of US workers are members of unions, compared to 500,000-per-year during the 1950s, when 35% of workers were members of unions.

Even more worrying for US unions is that they are less successful in defeating derecognition ballots. This reduced win-rate reflects that winning a recognition ballot does not force the bosses to bargain in good faith, and they are more likely resist a union's attempt to secure a contract when they know that they can use the failure to help push the union out in a subsequent ballot. According to the AFL-CIO, unions secure a collective agreement in less than two-thirds of workplaces after a successful recognition ballot.

A sharp rise in labour-practice violations by US bosses has been associated with limited penalties for companies found guilty of violating workers' rights. While having stronger penalties could reduce the likelihood that employers will attempt to intimidate workers (depending on the cost of fines compared to that of having a unionised work force for employers), the penalties would be permanently under threat. Additionally, this builds reliance on courts to protect workers' rights — rather than building unions' strength and capacity to defend workers — undermining the confidence of workers to take on the boss and organise.

In industries with high employment turnovers, any delay on a ballot, such as court action around violations by employers, can help undermine unionising drives, so that even when unions win court cases to defend workers' rights they lose the ballot.

Although winning union recognition is an important step in building a union, on its own it doesn't build an organisation able to consistently win contracts. Getting people to vote in a recognition ballot is different to getting them to participate in an industrial campaign to win a contract, which can turn into a war of attrition between workers on the one hand and the boss on the other.

In the US, some of the most successful organising campaigns have bypassed the ballot process entirely, such as the Justice for Janitors campaign. Similar to the strategy followed in the Australian construction industry by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, this focused not only on mobilising members and supporters to place maximum pressure on employers. It also sought to shift the focus of the campaign from subcontractors who employ janitors, who have extremely tight profit margins and are more difficult to win contracts from. Instead, Justice for Janitors has targeted the larger companies, such as hotels and resorts, to force them to pay more to subcontractors and to only contract unionised subcontractors.

Union recognition ballots undermine the democratic right of workers to be members of unions, as they remove the right of individual workers to join a union and be represented by it. Any call for union-recognition ballots by the labour movement reflects a significant retreat from the right of unions to represent workers wherever they have members.

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