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The Employee Free Choice Act and the RESPECT Act What to Do Now

March 22, 2009
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Related Topics: Labor Relations, Featured Article
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The Employee Free Choice Act and the Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradesworkers Act (RESPECT, for short), both supported by the Obama administration, would amend the National Labor Relations Act in significant ways and potentially lead to an unprecedented revival of unionization in the U.S.

Notably, under existing labor law, union-free employers have a reasonable chance to counteract a secretive organizing campaign due to secret-ballot elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board following a four- to six-week campaign where the employer presents the employees with its side of the story. However, under the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, employers will have no time to campaign and will find themselves unionized without so much as a single ballot cast. Employers will be forced to bargain with labor organizations that simply deliver authorization cards signed by a majority of employees. Signed authorization cards are easy to obtain by unions, particularly where an employer has not communicated why employees should not sign them.

As the passage of this legislation in the near future is quite likely, there is no better time than the present for union-free employers to be proactive in combating this expected new wave of organized labor.

The Employee Free Choice Act
If organized labor has its way and the act passes, it will amend the National Labor Relations Act in the following three significant ways, among others:

1. Eliminating the long-standing practice of secret balloting by requiring the National Labor Relations Board, following receipt of a petition, to investigate and, if applicable, certify a labor organization as a unit’s exclusive bargaining representative without the need for an election, as long as a majority of employees in the unit execute authorization cards selecting a union. These secretive card-signing drives, susceptible to peer pressure and coercion, would stymie an employer’s effort to educate employees on the benefits of remaining union-free. The typical six-week campaign period, where employees are exposed to "both sides of the story," would be a thing of the past.

2. Guaranteeing a first collective bargaining agreement either through collective bargaining during a short time span or through binding arbitration, as follows:

• Requiring employers to begin bargaining with a newly certified union within 10 days of a request to do so;

• Permitting either party in the bargaining process to request mediation if the parties have not reached an agreement within 90 days of the start of bargaining; and

• Empowering a federal arbitration panel to set the terms of the initial collective bargaining agreement if the parties have not come to an agreement after 30 days of mediation. The binding agreement imposed by the arbitration panel would be valid for two years.

Accordingly, employers will either have to agree to a first contract within 120 days of the start of bargaining or risk having one imposed on them through binding arbitration. Either way, a first contract is guaranteed; an employer will have to live with it for a minimum of two years.

3. Strengthening penalties against employers committing an unfair labor practice during organizing campaigns and first contract negotiations, as follows:

• Providing for liquidated damages of three times back pay for employers found to have unlawfully discharged or discriminated against a pro-union employee;

• Imposing a civil penalty of $20,000 per occurrence for willful and repeated violations; and

• Providing for compulsory injunctive relief from federal courts where there is reasonable cause to believe an employer committed an unfair labor practice.

The RESPECT Act
If the Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradesworkers Act is made law, it will amend the National Labor Relations Act by significantly limiting the definition of "supervisor," thus bringing many present supervisors within the ambit of a collective bargaining unit. The act—whose provisions take up just three lines—would remove from the definition of "supervisor" the duties of "assigning" and "responsibly directing" the work of other employees. Thus, under the new legislation, "supervisors" must "hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, reward, or discipline other employees" for a majority of their work time.

The act would effectively remove present frontline, working supervisors from the NLRA’s supervisory exclusion, thereby increasing the number of employees eligible for union representation. In doing so, the legislation would therefore decrease the number of supervisors permitted to campaign on behalf of the employer in the event of union organizing.

What should employers be doing now?
The likely passage of these acts will pose a whole new set of challenges to employers seeking to avoid unionization. Employers must therefore act now to devise new methods to continue opposing unionization successfully in this new environment. Waiting until the new legislation becomes law will leave union-free employers vulnerable to opportunistic labor organizations that are ready to emerge with signed authorization cards the moment the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law. And once a union is certified, it becomes exponentially more difficult for employers to regain union-free status.

Fortunately, there is time now for employers to coordinate tactics to counteract potential organizing campaigns. As part of these preparations, it is beneficial to have an outside consultant or labor lawyer conduct a union prevention audit to provide a snapshot of the organization’s vulnerability to unions and suggest action steps to mitigate risks. Prevention audits assist employers in executing the following steps, which are vital in anticipation of the passage of these two union-empowering bills.

1. Manager training: Employers must tell on-site managers that the company desires to stay union-free and explain why that is so. The company should emphasize that it is in the managers’ interest to do so and that they are expected, as an essential function of the job, to adopt and advance this policy.

Managers should learn the causes of unionization, and employers should stress that the principal cause usually resides not with promises of better pay or benefits, but rather with managers’ poor interaction with line employees and the resulting employee perception of unfair treatment and lack of a voice.

Managers should be taught the signs of union organizing and the new significance of union authorization cards. They must also learn what unfair labor practices are, since they are more expansive under the Employee Free Choice Act. They should learn how to communicate effectively with line employees while avoiding unfair labor practices. Supervisors also must learn how to poll employees, in an informal manner, to determine their level of satisfaction with wages, benefits and their work environment in general. It is critical that supervisors are trained regarding what they lawfully can and cannot say about unions and organizing efforts.

Managers must be well equipped to properly field the inevitable questions rank-and-file employees will have. Finally, there is a unique opportunity now to train supervisors on the risks of unionization so that if their jobs wind up falling into the bargaining unit with the new definition of "supervisor" under the RESPECT Act, they will be in position to oppose card signing and educate rank-and-file employees, when the time comes, on the reasons why card signing is not in their best interests.

2. Supervisor attitudes: First-line supervision makes or breaks an employer’s plan to remain nonunion. Supervisors are the day-to-day face of the company to rank-and-file employees and, as a result, are either the cause or the cure of employee dissatisfaction. Employers must assess whether the supervisors themselves are content and motivated to avoid a union. Our experience is that their support cannot be assumed.

3. Employee attitudes: It is extremely important to learn how employees feel about unions. Since it is an unfair labor practice to ask employees their feelings about unions, we recommend interviews with first-line supervisors to discuss each direct report generally. The interviews often reveal whether the company is vulnerable to unionization and why. The interviews will also reveal how well the supervisors know their employees.

4. Compensation: Wages and benefits should be compared with those of unionized companies that employ workers from the company’s local population. Even though the union shops’ compensation may be higher, union-free employers must be armed with the information about the unionized shops to respond credibly to employee questions about pay practices.

5. Communication: Handbooks and other policies should be reviewed to determine if the company has effectively communicated to employees that it has a policy of remaining union-free. This is a two-pronged approach. First, the company has to foster a workplace where employees feel they can candidly address concerns with their supervisors and human resources without fear of retaliation. Management’s relationship with employees should be evaluated to determine if everything is being done to ensure that employees enjoy working for the company, free of intimidation from management. Second, the company must proactively communicate to employees the reasons to remain union-free, including the loss of the right to speak to management without a union intermediary, the cost of strikes and the need to hand over part of each paycheck to the union.

6. Policy and practice review: As already noted, the leading causes of unionization are typically employee insecurity, dissatisfaction and poor workplace morale. As such, handbooks, policies and practices should be reviewed to ensure that an effective and widely known complaint or grievance procedure is in place. Additionally, employers should ensure that the organization has employee empowerment programs, employee appreciation and recognition events, and methods to elicit employee feedback, such as surveys. Employers should also reaffirm a commitment to their policies on equal employment opportunity, anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation. Also, employers must ensure that they have solicitation and distribution policies in place, and make certain that they prohibit third parties from entering company premises for solicitation purposes. Finally, employers should update their electronic communications polices and policies concerning bulletin boards and other postings.

7. Review job descriptions and duties: To get ahead of the possible passage of the Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradesworkers Act, employers should evaluate supervisors’ job descriptions, as well as their actual duties and responsibilities. This is necessary to determine supervisory status under the new definition of "supervisor." Employers would also be wise to start considering preferred bargaining-unit composition, should an organizing effort take place.

8. Small group meetings: Human resources must conduct small group meetings with employees to determine their level of satisfaction, as well as the issues that may be of concern to them. The meetings will also reveal how employees feel about their supervisors and management, and will be an opportunity to "market" HR as a sympathetic link between employees and management.

Avoid being a target now
These steps amount to a sound union prevention audit and response to the new legislation. And as in so many endeavors, an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. By following these steps, employers will have a good picture of their vulnerability to unionization. Up until now, most companies caught by surprise by union organizers had a chance to repel the union initiative. Under the Employee Free Choice Act, unprepared employers will have no more campaign opportunities, no more elections and thus no real chance to reverse organized labor’s momentum. An employer must bargain with a union that simply delivers union authorization cards. Surprised companies will not have time to avoid bargaining and potential binding arbitration once a manager finds a stack of union authorization cards on his or her desk. So there is no better time to act than the present, before the likely passage of these bills.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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