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April 10, 2013 / Paul Levy

There is a reason we have elections

Sunday, August 31, 2008, 10:20pm

One more posting in honor of Labor Day.

Recently, an op-ed was published in the Boston Globe, entitled “Unions’ new role in the workplace“. It was written by Kris Rondeau and Janna Malamud Smith. People with good memories will remember that Rondeau was a driving force in the creation of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) twenty years ago. The slogan she and her colleagues developed — “You can’t eat prestige” — was one of the masterstrokes of union organizing. It took several tries, but finally the union eked out a small majority in an election and became the bargaining agent for a significant number of workers at Harvard University. They were able to do so, ultimately, because they had a personal and respectful relationship with virtually every person voting in that election. Many of those employees viewed themselves as professionals who did not want or need a union. Rondeau did not attempt to bypass those people by ignoring their concerns. Instead they were treated with just as much respect as those who wanted the union. The result was that even those on the losing side of the vote felt their views had been heard and considered and did not fall into a posture of resentment and anger.

In my previous job as Administrative Dean of Harvard Medical School, I had many opportunities to work with Rondeau and her colleagues and enjoyed what we were able to accomplish together. She and her team were great negotiators, but the key to their success during this process — like during the organizing drive — was that they were intimately familiar with virtually every member of their union — both learning from them and teaching them. Indeed, the HUCTW often had a better perspective on what would make the University work better than the administrators and supervisors in the University, because they had a real connection to what was happening on the “factory floor.” But, instead of being confrontational with that information, they used it to educate the management, too, and worked together to enhance both the lives of workers and the underlying mission of the University.

In their op-ed Rondeau and Smith offer the opinion that this approach to union-management relations should be a guide for the future. This is a great vision, but whether or not it will be achieved is questionable. Just look at the comments under the article to see opposing views. There are clearly those who will always believe that “allying with the employer is the wrong approach and ultimately not in workers’ interests; when workers’ and bosses’ interests occasionally coincide, it’s the exception rather than the rule.”

But the HUCTW history supports one point in which I believe quite firmly. If the organizing approach being advocated by the SEIU and many politicians is adopted — i.e., the elimination of elections — they will have created a cancer of discontent within the very union expansions they hope to achieve. Why? Because there will always be a significant number of workers in every company — whether 30%, 40%, 50% or 60% — who would choose to vote against unionization in a secret ballot process. By disenfranchising that group through the use of a card-check system, the unions will be sowing the seeds of resentment that will hurt them for years to come.

In America, we accept the idea that we might be on the losing side of an election, and we live with that result. But, if we are precluded from being allowed to have a say, we remain angry for a long, long time.

This was put more elegantly than I have done in comments I received from an organizer in one of the local Boston unions:

I must say I don’t understand why anyone would think that to take away a person’s right to an election is good idea. It’s seems to me that it would create a feeling of disempowerment instead the feelings that should be created: The feelings of pride and of finding your voice, realization of the fact that you have value to add and a respectful way of sharing it.

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