Why Union Organizing Often Fails

by Randy Shaw on December 8, 2008

Blame for declining union membership is usually attributed to structural changes in the economy, increased globalization, and unions’ failure to devote adequate resources to organizing. But a recent union drive at a private college in South Florida tells a much different, and far too typical, story. It is an account of immigrant workers who got tired of earning minimum wages, and submitted cards authorizing representation by SEIU Local 11. Their employer, UNICCO, accepted the workers decision to unionize, and prepared to begin collective bargaining. Story over? Not quite. After UNICCO informed Nova Southeastern University, which employs the contracting company, that it was recognizing SEIU, Nova put UNICCO’s contract out for bid. A non-union company, TCB Systems, then replaced UNICCO, and farmed out Nova’s janitorial work to multiple subcontractors. The leaders of the union drive and other pro-union workers soon lost their jobs, and people’s lives were destroyed for the “crime” of seeking decent wages, benefits and working conditions. SEIU Local 11 and its supporters did everything right to fulfill Nova janitors’ desire to unionize, but the nation’s labor laws do not reward successful organizing. The Obama Administration must change this.

Miami Starts Road to Unionization

On May 1, 2006, janitors at the University of Miami (UM) won an historic victory that appeared to pave the way for increased unionization of low-wage immigrant janitors, landscapers and security guards throughout the wealthy South Florida region. The “Yes We Cane” campaign (discussed in a full chapter of my new book) came straight from the playbook of the United Farm Workers of the 1960’s and 70’s, and even included Reverend Chris Hartmire, Stephen Lerner, Dolores Huerta, Eliseo Medina and other veterans of that movement.

The next campaign was slated for Nova Southeastern University (hereafter “Nova”) in suburban Broward County. Nova workers had contacted SEIU Local 11 in December 2005, and had already begun organizing for a union when the (UM) janitors prevailed.

Since Nova janitors had the same employer (UNICCO) as at UM, another hard-fought campaign would not appear necessary. And the Nova janitors were an unusually strong pro-union group, with 80 of 330 attending one of the earliest meetings about the unionization drive.

But labor laws in the United States do not encourage unionization. So regardless of how many workers desired to be represented by SEIU Local 11, how many cards were submitted authorizing unionization, and despite the employer’s agreement to accept card check recognition and to start bargaining with SEIU – Nova found a way to deny workers union representation.

Nova’s Roadblock

After UNICCO told Nova that it was recognizing SEIU through card check, the school –which had long claimed that it was not involved in the unionization issue – announced that it was putting its janitorial contract up for bid. Nova’s President Ray Ferrero had been sending letters to the community professing his commitment to secret ballot union elections, which is an alternative to card check recognition that many employers – because it gives them the opportunity to use scare tactics and/or systematic legal violations to influence the election – prefer.

But Nova was not the employer in this case. Yet the school was intervening to deny workers the right to unionize under a card check method valid under federal law, and which their employer accepted.

Not surprisingly, the bidding process resulted in Nova’s replacement of UNICCO in February 2007 with the non-union TCB Systems. TCB then farmed out the work to multiple subcontractors, breaking up SEIU’s existing bargaining unit and putting up a major obstacle to Nova janitors’ future unionization efforts.

After TCB and their subcontractors took over, 108 Nova workers who had been the leading union organizers, along with many others with pro-union sympathies, lost their jobs. SEIU claims they were fired for their union sympathies, a stance denied by Nova and TCB (the matter is pending in court).

SEIU, activists with the South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice and other community supporters waged a valiant campaign to prevent the workers from losing their jobs but to no avail. And now that these jobs have been lost, and one ex-worker died after losing her health insurance, local media coverage of the Nova campaign has found the lesson in this sordid tale of a greedy private university destroying immigrant workers lives.

This lesson? Not that federal labor law creates a grossly uneven playing field for workers seeking to improve wages and working conditions. Rather, the lesson is that workers should not trust unions.

“The Train Will Not Be Stopped”

Erik Brakken was the lead organizer for SEIU’s UM campaign, and served the same role at Nova. Brakken told me last week that while Nova was a major setback, improving wages, benefits and working conditions for South Florida’s janitors, security guards and landscapers is a “train that will not be stopped.”

SEIU won a major victory for workers in the above three job categories at affluent Fisher Island, and is mobilizing to prevent TCB from continuing its contract with Miami-Dade County. In addition, the NLRB has issued charges against TCB for its treatment of workers at Nova, though the court appeals of these orders can take years.

Nova is a classic, and too often-repeated example of how union organizing drives can do everything right and still fail.

Next Steps: Change Federal Law

The Nova story would have been much different under some of the federal law reforms organized labor and its supporters are pushing the Obama Administration to enact. Consider:

If the Employee Free Choice Act (which requires employers to accept card check recognition, ending the days where employers could deny unionization through illegal election tactics) were law, Nova’s president could not have insisted on a secret ballot election without being guilty of an unfair labor practice;

If federal law protected unionized workers from losing their rights due to a change of employers at the same worksite, Nova would have had no incentive to replace UNICCO with a non-union employer.

If federal law imposed binding arbitration after 90 days of bargaining without reaching an agreement, a nursing home in Nova’s home of Broward County would not be still awaiting a contract a decade after the workers joined the union and began contract negotiations. And UNITE HERE’s Congress Hotel workers in Chicago would not have to be in their sixth year on strike to get the wages and working conditions they deserve.

If federal law imposed steep penalties, including mandatory bargaining orders, against employers that fired workers for union organizing, and created expedited judical review procedures, than SEIU’s original janitorial workforce at Nova would still be intact.

These are some of the critical “Changes We Need” to again make work pay and to protect and expand the nation’s shrinking middle-class.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the newly-released Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

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