From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
November/December 2010 Edition
By Tom Breslin
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training
Does anyone remember the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)? This was supposed to be the highlight of the president’s pro-labor agenda, and with 60 Democrats in the U.S. Senate after the election, it was supposed to pass easily. As we recall, part of EFCA included a card check procedure for union recognition after a majority of workers signed union authorization cards. I hope no one was holding their breath waiting for this bill to pass.
While registered nurses and health care professionals who need union representation have been waiting for any significant labor law reform in the face of increased employer hostility in recent years, some employers have not waited to take action.
The Regis Corp., which is based in Minneapolis and owns several chains of hair salons like Supercuts, Cost Cutters, Regis and Master Cuts has not waited for the EFCA to be acted upon. The CEO, Paul Finkelstein, under the advice and with the assistance of Jackson and Lewis (yes, the same Jackson and Lewis which represents some Massachusetts hospitals), has begun to have employees sign cards as well. These cards are, however, slightly different than the cards to which we are accustomed.
Employees who sign these cards are saying that they are revoking their rights in the future to join or form a union through a card check process. Finkelstein explains this by saying that anyone who signs these cards is not waiving their rights to a secret ballot election, just not to achieve union recognition through the use of cards. He calls this a “protection of secret vote agreement.”
While that might sound reasonable to some anti-union and anti-EFCA people out there, what Finkelstein is not saying is that his employees will likely never be able to form a union because of the intimidation factor he has created over the authorization card issue.
Finkelstein further defends this practice by suggesting that workers “too often have no idea what they’re signing” when they sign a union authorization card, even though the language on the card is clear and easily understandable.
Some Regis employees have already been fired, but of course, according to Regis, they have been fired for reasons other than refusing to sign these cards. According to the fired employees, there is an air of intimidation for those who are not willing to sign their legal rights away.
Charges have already been filed and the NLRB is working on this at their usual pace, but Finkelstein has already indicated that he is willing to take this issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. There must be a lot of money in haircuts or he has a lot of financial support.
Why do I bring this up? After all, the failure of the Congress to act on EFCA has not prevented anyone from organizing; or has it? The fact that employers have been looking for ways to prevent workers from exercising their rights under the law should send a strong message to workers and the unions who are looking to represent them.
Some employers will go to any lengths to fight even the possibility of labor law reform that might finally level the playing field when it comes to workers expressing their choice for union representation.
What then, should unions do in response to employers like Finkelstein who are afraid of workers exercising their rights under the law?
First of all, unions should not wait for Congress, or anyone else to act. Even if EFCA does pass in the next legislative session, it will be watered down to the point that the card check component of the proposed law will be gone. What unions should be doing is going out to unorganized workplaces to help workers understand that their lives will be better as a result of joining a union.
The facts are clear. Union members make more money, have better health insurance, and are more likely to have a pension than non-unionized workers. Further, they have the non-economic benefits of a union like prescribed procedures for layoff recall, scheduling issues, etc. Did I forget to mention Just Cause rights, a grievance process and binding arbitration?
Data show that there are millions of American workers who would join a union if they could. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, if all workers who wanted a union had a union, the unionization rate in the U.S. would be several times the current rate.
The point is, they can. While management opposition is the primary reason for the perceived inability to organize, there are some unions who continue to aggressively organize, even in the face of anti-union consultants and hostile employers. We need look no further than the NNU success stories in Texas, Missouri and other states.
So, what does this mean for the MNA? Well, in addition to organizing new units, we should be making sure that our existing bargaining units are internally organized, politically active and ready to take on the fight to advance the cause of registered nurses and health care professionals so that they can effectively advocate for their patients.
This means anything from improving how we perform the work of the members at the bargaining unit level, to working collaboratively across bargaining units and within hospital corporations to bargaining units assisting each other. Failure to do so may mean that contracts will diminish over time even for the strongest units as standards are driven down by aggressive employers who target weaker units.
Failure of members to act together and assist each other only helps the employer by making it easier for them to engage in conduct like Paul Finkelstein trying either to prevent workers from organizing or picking weaker bargaining units to force concessions and eventually, lower standards for the profession.
Of course that could not happen here. Or could it?
The National Labor Relations Board regional office in Minneapolis has issued a complaint against the Regis Corp. and its CEO Paul Finkelstein. In its ruling, the board took issue with a DVD that Regis produced for its employees in which it threatened to “close salons if employees selected a union to represent them” and would “blacklist them in the industry” if they signed authorization cards or supported a union. A hearing before an administrative law judge will be held in the coming year.
“My view is that the law is pretty clear and that Regis violated the National Labor Relations Act,” said Marlin Osthus, regional director of the NLRB Minneapolis office. “What’s unusual and somewhat egregious is the fact that it has affected so many employees and so many locations across the country.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 2, 2010).