May 18, 2007 Volume 108 Number 10

SEIU 49 agrees to halt card check organizing

Portland-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 appears to have been targeted for legal action by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union group based in Virginia. Lawyers for the group helped a Portland maintenance worker press a pair of unfair labor practice complaints against both Local 49 and his employer — Somers Building Maintenance (SBM) — a janitorial contractor based in Sacramento.

In a settlement agreement with the National Labor Relations Board, Local 49 pledged last month not to use card-check organizing for six months and SBM agreed to not recognize Local 49 for a period of one year unless the union goes through an NLRB election. The NLRB is the federal agency that runs union elections.

SBM is unionized except for several locations in Oregon, said Local 49 organizer Maggie Long. A couple years ago, the company agreed to a stance of neutrality toward union drives at its nonunion locations, and said it would grant union recognition where SEIU presented authorization cards from a majority at any location.

So in January 2006, Long and fellow Local 49 organizer Silvia Ruiz began contacting workers from a 33-worker SBM unit that cleans a Portland silicon wafer plant owned by Siltronics. Working from a list provided by the company, they began visiting workers in their homes to tout the merits of belonging to a union. By June, Long says, they believed they’d signed up a majority, and presented cards to the company. But SBM managers held off on union recognition, saying that in fact the union was short of a majority. And then three SBM-Siltronic workers wrote to the union saying they’d changed their mind.

Notwithstanding SBM’s neutrality commitment, Long says she thinks company managers provoked the turnarounds in mandatory one-on-one meetings with workers. Meanwhile, the company experienced turnover, so that the slim pro-union majority that existed in June evaporated.

Nonetheless, on Oct. 12, SBM agreed to recognize the union retroactively, on the basis of the ostensible majority in June.

That ran afoul of NLRB rules. So-called “card-check” agreements like the one SEIU had with SBM rely on a provision in the law that allows employers to voluntarily recognize a union where there is majority support for it — without going through an NLRB-supervised election. But the law forbids granting or accepting union recognition unless there is some objective demonstration that the union has a majority.

Unions prefer card check because they say the NLRB election ground rules tilt the field heavily in the employers’ favor, and are working to make card check possible by passing the Employee Free Choice Act in Congress. Employer groups, including the National Right to Work Foundation, are pushing a bill that would outlaw card check union recognition.

With the support of the National Right to Work Foundation, an SBM employee who was not part of the bargaining unit filed unfair labor practice complaints with the NLRB against SEIU and SBM.

Attorney Giles Gibson, who defended Local 49 on the SBM-Siltronic case, said he thinks the National Right to Work Foundation is practically running counter-organizing drives at each location where a card check campaign is under way — soliciting employees to repudiate cards and otherwise interfering with the campaigns.

“It’s not surprising that since card check has become more successful, they’re looking for ways to shut them down,” Long, the organizer, said.

In Local 49’s case, the NLRB judged the union to be a repeat violator, because of an earlier dispute at Kaiser Permanente, which has a nationwide multi-union partnership agreement. There, too, with the help of the National Right-to-Work Foundation, an employee at a Kaiser business office objected when Kaiser recognized SEIU in October 2005 without going through an election.

In July 2006, Kaiser and Local 49 agreed to rescind union recognition at the unit. There, at least, the union was vindicated when a majority voted to unionize in an NLRB-supervised union election in late April.

In the SBM-Siltronic case, on the other hand, the union and company agreed April 20 to the settlement.

In an April 24 press release picked up by the Oregonian the following day, the National Right-to-Work Foundation characterized the case as a victory against a “rampant abuse of employees’ rights” and said SEIU had been forced to “abandon the coercive ‘card check’ union organizing process.”

The lesson for other unions, Long says, is to know the law, and be aware that anti-union groups are prepared to get involved at any stage of a union campaign.

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