by Thomas Bergan
Manager, AIA Federal Legislative Relations
In March 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation that would dramatically alter the method by which American workers form a union. This legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act of 2007 (H.R. 800), passed the House by a vote of 241- 185; shortly thereafter, the Senate failed to reach the 60 votes necessary to begin debate on the bill as the cloture vote failed, 51-48. Congress did not address this legislation in 2008, but it is probable that the bill will reemerge now that the new Congress has convened. The AIA Board Advocacy Committee, which oversees national AIA legislative initiatives, would like to hear your opinion on this topic. Please read on.
Under current law, the most common method of determining whether employees want union representation is through a secret ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If a majority of employees vote in favor of union representation, the NLRB will acknowledge the union as the employees’ bargaining representative. The NLRB is required to ensure the election is fair and free of coercion through long-established voting procedures. An NLRB officer is present at every election to ensure compliance with unionization law.
The Employee Free Choice Act would drastically alter the way by which employees could organize into a union. Under the legislation, employees could request representation by a labor organization if a majority of employees in an appropriate unit sign petition cards designating a union as their bargaining representative. This process, known as “card-check,” would do away with the secret ballot elections and would create an open process by which employees could potentially be put in a situation of voting in front of their coworkers, union organizers, and employers. However, if 30 percent or more employees in an appropriate unit demand a secret ballot election, that right is still preserved. The legislation would also dramatically increase penalties for employers who are found to have violated employee rights during union organization activities or contract negotiations.
Labor groups nationwide contend that the current process for forming a union does not protect the rights of American workers. Card-check supporters argue that the NLRB election-process is controlled by employers/management at the expense of employees. As NLRB elections often take 30 days or more, this process opens the window to intimidation, harassment, and coercion of employees attempting to organize the union. A card-check process would do away with the lengthy election process and would instead guarantee union recognition from the employer if a majority of employees simply sign union cards. The AFL-CIO notes that, “academic studies show that workers who organize under majority sign-up (card-check) feel less pressure from coworkers to support the union than workers who organize under the NLRB election process.”
Opponents of the bill however, maintain that the current process for forming a union is fair and that card-check would in fact increase the chances of intimidation, harassment, and coercion of employees seeking to form a union. By stripping away the right to a secret ballot election, the employees’ votes are made public to the employer, the union organizers, and coworkers. Secret ballot elections conducted by the NLRB ensure a worker’s vote remains private. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues that the NLRB election process is fair and should not be changed: “The NLRB election process, established and refined through decades of experience, carefully balances the interests of employees, unions, and employers in order to ensure that workers can hear all sides and then make up their minds and vote in private, without intimidation or coercion.”
Impact on AIA Members?
If The Employee Free Choice Act were to become federal law, it would likely make it easier for workers to form a union. This could in theory allow some architecture firm employees, such as interns, to more easily request union representation. This could prove detrimental to owners of firms, as the unionization of employees is sometimes viewed as harmful to business. Also, the legislation references an “appropriate unit” of workers. The size and classification of a “unit” is not defined. It is therefore reasonable to assume that a very small group of employees could be considered a “unit” and therefore eligible to demand union representation.
A number of AIA members, as well as one state component (AIA Arkansas), have urged the national AIA component to oppose card-check legislation.
The House is expected to vote on and pass the legislation in January 2009. Although Senate passage is less likely, the increased Democratic majority there means it has a greater chance of passing. President-elect Obama indicated during his time as a senator that he supported the legislation.
AIA Public Policies and Positions
AIA Public Policy 29, “Tax and Regulatory System,” states that “The AIA supports governmental policies, programs, and administration that promote a fair tax code and business regulations that encourage the free enterprise system and the economic well being of the American people, the U.S. construction industry, and the profession of architecture. . . . “
It is the opinion of the AIA Federal Relations team that this position statement does not provide clear direction on this legislation.
Because of the many complexities inherent with any discussion about unions (or changing the methods by which workers form a union), the Board Advocacy Committee is reviewing this issue to decide whether to recommend that the AIA support the legislation, remain neutral, or oppose it. And, if the decision is to oppose, would that be passively (i.e., inform members who ask and include it on the AIA watch list with a notation that the AIA opposes) or actively (i.e., join a coalition in opposition to the legislation)?
Your comments will help greatly to inform their decision.