October 22, 2014

Union rep rules out of sync with times

By UTU International President Mike Futhey

The National Mediation Board, which administers the Railway Labor Act, proposes changing the rules by which rail and airline employees choose labor union representation. The UTU supports the change.

The NMB rules for representation elections now require a majority of employees eligible to vote actually cast a ballot favoring a union before that union is certified as the bargaining agent. Those not voting are assumed to have cast a “no” ballot.

By contrast, the National Labor Relations Board, which administers labor law affecting the bus industry, certifies representation elections based on results of those actually voting — the universal standard in democratic elections.

The UTU submitted comments supporting the change. A final ruling by the NMB may be issued this month.

You might wonder why the NMB has been out of sync with universal democratic voting procedures. The answer is circumstances were markedly different when the rule was first imposed during the 1930s.

Back then, the NMB was concerned with company unions, racial discrimination, conflict among competing unions, lower reading comprehension among union members, primitive means of communication, and even communist agitators.

Two-thirds of the NMB workload in the 1930s involved purging outlawed company unions, which were controlled and financed by management. Requiring a majority of those eligible to vote (as opposed to a majority of those voting) more conclusively communicated to management an employee desire for an independent labor union.

African-American employees often were denied representation in company unions, and were discriminated against in hiring, assignments and discipline. Many railroads back then tried to deny ballots to African-American employees. By certifying representation elections based on the majority of those eligible to vote, the NMB advanced racial democracy.

In that earlier era, dozens of labor unions were in competition for representation, as it was not until 1954 that the AFL-CIO constitution prohibited “raiding” by its member unions. Thus, the NMB sought to “get it right” in determining which union the majority of employees favored.

During the 1930s, only 30 percent of workers held high school diplomas (versus more than 70 percent today), and voting was by mail ballot with detailed written instructions.

Communication also was primitive. This was no small concern, as under the Railway Labor Act, representation is system-wide. It may be hard to believe in this era of cell phones, but during the 1930s, it took up to five AT&T operators to complete long-distance calls, which cost up to $33 in current dollars. By requiring a majority of eligible employees vote in favor of representation, the procedure promoted a more informed vote as union supporters had incentive to educate members on each individual property and encourage them to vote.

Finally, during the 1930s, communist agitators advocated worker militancy. The NMB election procedures of that era sought to prevent a handful of agitators from rigging elections.

Circumstances have, indeed, changed. And that is why the NMB now proposes to bring its 75-year-old representation election voting procedures in sync with the universal rule of democratic elections.

Meanwhile, Congress currently has before it the Employee Free Choice Act, which affects our bus members covered under the National Labor Relations Act. Employers and their friends in Congress have so far blocked passage of that law.

The Employee Free Choice Act would do three things to level the playing field for employees and employers.

It would strengthen penalties against companies that illegally coerce employees from expressing support for union representation; it would require a neutral third party impose a contract when a company refuses to negotiate in good faith; and it would require an employer to recognize a union immediately if a majority of employees sign union-authorization cards.

The UTU supports passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.