Saturday, September 16, 2017

Minnesota Legislature: Respect U of M Contingent Faculty By Letting Them Decide Whether or Not to Unionize

Whether a group of employees wants to form a union to represent them in collective bargaining is a decision that those employees should be entitled to make. Unfortunately, contingent faculty (non-tenure-track instructors, lecturers, and teaching specialists) at the University of Minnesota will likely not get to make that decision themselves. Rather, the Minnesota State Legislature effectively prevented them from being able to make this decision when it enacted an unnecessary provision in state law over 35 years ago. In the wake of a state appeals court ruling earlier this month upholding this strange legislative provision, it’s time for the legislature to correct its earlier mistake and repeal this provision.

Perhaps some background is needed. When some employees want to form a union, an appropriate bargaining unit needs to be defined in order to specify exactly what positions would be represented by a union if an organizing drive is successful. Standard practice is for the employees or their desired representative (a specific labor union) to initially propose this definition. If an employer objects and prefers a broader or narrower definition, then a neutral, expert governmental agency investigates and determines the exact definition of the appropriate bargaining unit based on input and evidence. This is exactly what happens in the U.S. private sector (with the National Labor Relations Board empowered by federal law to handle unit determination questions based on its judgement of which employees share a “community of interest”), and, as far as I can tell, in almost all public sector jurisdictions in the United States (for example, see South Dakota's Public Employment Labor Relations Act section 3-18-4 or Iowa's Public Employment Relations Act section 20.13).

When the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) was first enacted in 1971, this standard practice was adopted by empowering the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) to determine appropriate bargaining units when a public sector employer objects to the workers’ proposed definition. For state agencies, the law contained a proviso that an appropriate bargaining unit should consist of “all the employees under the same appointing Authority” unless “professional, geographical or other considerations affecting employment relations clearly require” some other appropriate unit (section 179.74). As is common elsewhere, there were no special provisions for the University of Minnesota, school districts, or others covered by PELRA.

In 1980, however, the Minnesota State Legislature deviated from common practice by changing PELRA to specify 16 (now 17) state bargaining units and 12 (now 13) University of Minnesota bargaining units (see Minnesota Session Laws 1980 c 617 s 40) (in later years, court units were also specified). This has long puzzled me, especially because it runs contrary to standard practice, and it is likely rooted in a desire to impose operational stability or convenience by limiting the number of bargaining units that a state agency or the University of Minnesota has to deal with. But the effect is to impose an outdated occupational structure on contemporary realities and to deny employees their rights to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. This is clearly not the way to balance efficiency, equity, and voice—a principle that I have long advocated as the key objective of work-related public policy (also see this, and this).

Getting back to the plight of contingent faculty at the University of Minnesota, the way the process should have worked was for BMS to have had the discretion to use its expert judgement decide whether it was best to include contingent faculty with tenure-track faculty, or to define two separate units, based on input, hearings, and the facts of this particular situation at this particular time. But with the unit definitions pre-specified by state law, contingent faculty are not allowed to have their own unit, and the state appeals court ruled that they are not part of the tenure-track unit. So this ruling means that contingent faculty are included in a catch-all unit of all professional and administrative employees at the University of Minnesota. The diversity of this unit is hard to grasp. By one count, there are over 300 job titles in it, presumably many more than in 1980. By my reckoning, this will kill the contingent faculty union drive because  in order to unionize they'll need to get a majority of accountants, cartographers, athletic trainers, and numerous others to all vote for a single union, which is close to impossible. It strains credulity to think that this diversity (a) represents a community of interest for these employee groups and (b) serves anyone’s interests except the administration of the University of Minnesota because it makes unionization almost impossible (which might explain why the administration spent 18 months trying to get this ruling).  

The processes of labor relations work best when they are allowed to be dynamic and to adapt to changing situations by those directly involved. Collective bargaining has proven to be adaptable to many industries and occupations, and can handle economic, technological, and other changes when labor and management negotiators have the freedom to determine the scope and tenor of their negotiations. Similarly, determining appropriate bargaining units should be a flexible process in which a neutral, expert agency has the ability to adjust to changing trends based on input from the relevant parties, hearings, and evidence about the particular realities of each case. The world of work has changed significantly since 1980, and it’s silly to think that even a well-intentioned legislative intervention in 1980 is still the best approach today (exhibit A: the tremendous rise of contingent faculty at the University of Minnesota).

But there is an easy solution: simply repeal sections 179A.10 Subd. 2 (defining state units), 179A.101 Subd. 1 (defining court units), and 179A.11 Subd. 1 (defining University of Minnesota units). No language is needed to replace these unnecessary passages. In their absence, the authority to determine appropriate bargaining units on a case-by-case basis will revert back to BMS under sections 179A.04 Subd. 2 and 179A.09, and common sense practice found throughout the rest of the state and most of the country will be restored. And contingent faculty at the University of Minnesota, and perhaps other employee groups, too, will be able to act like the autonomous, dignified human beings that they are and make a decision whether to unionize or not.

Monday, August 14, 2017

From Google to Top Dog hot dogs via Charlottesville: What About Employee Free Speech?

It’s been an “interesting” week. First, a Googler was fired for his infamous memo on the alleged biological roots of gender inequality. And now Top Dog, a California hot dog chain, has fired a cook because he was identified on social media as a participant in the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville. These firings are probably legal in the United States because of employment-at-will, but should they be?

Most workers in the United States are at-will employees. As explained by a Tennessee court way back in 1884, this means that employers “may dismiss their employees at will, be they many or few, for good cause, for no cause or even for cause morally wrong, without being thereby guilty of legal wrong.” Employment-at-will is not unlimited. Workers covered by union contracts or similar civil service rules are likely shielded from the vagaries of at-will employment by policies that require a just or good cause for being disciplined or terminated. And there are legal exceptions, such as nondiscrimination protections (you can’t be fired because of your gender or race, for example), and some very specific judicial exceptions. But these exceptions are much narrower than most people believe. Most workers can’t be fired for a reason that violates a specific nondiscrimination law, but otherwise employers generally do not need a good reason to fire someone. So even if the cook has been misidentified, he can still be fired because Top Dog doesn’t need a good reason for firing someone.

But what about the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and expression? Doesn’t this protect the Google engineer and the hot dog cook? No. The First Amendment protects freedom of expression by restricting governmental limitations on freedom of speech; it does not prohibit private organizations like Google and Top Dog from limiting speech and expression. Contrary to popular beliefs, U.S. workers generally do not enjoy the right to free speech and expression. So the firings of the Google engineer and the hot dog cook were likely legal.

But should they be? In our book Invisible Hands, Invisible Objectives: Bringing Workplace Law and Public Policy Into Focus, Steve Befort and I advocate for broad freedom of speech protections for employees. The effectiveness of the political process as well as respect for human dignity require that employees be able to exchange ideas, complain, attend meetings and demonstrations, and blog or tweet about issues of either public or private concern. With that said, a difficulty with any free speech protection is how to accommodate views that are unpleasant and contrary to our own. These difficulties will never disappear, but currently they are solved in the work arena by giving employers all the power. I think it would be better to have some protections. 

And yet, the events of the past week dramatically highlight that these protections should not be unlimited. Rather, there should be statutory protections for employee free speech in which private and public employers are not allowed to violate an employee's freedom of expression either in or out of the workplace absent a legitimate business justification for a specific limitation. If a worker who has been disciplined or discharged can make a case that this stemmed from expressive activity (which isn’t in doubt for the two workers here), then the employer must demonstrate a "substantial and legitimate business reason" for the action to be legally acceptable.

What would this mean for the Google engineer and the hot dog cook? Would their reprehensible actions be protected? Probably not. Behavior that harms the employer’s reputation as well as behavior that causes other employees to be unable to work with him or her are generally seen as giving the employer a legitimate business reason to discipline or fire a worker even when that worker is protected by a just cause contractual provision (as in the United States) or wrongful discharge statute (as in Canada). So firing the Googler and the cook would likely be legal. We do not have to concede all employee rights to freedom of expression in order to denounce the behaviors of the past week. 

Admittedly, there might be other circumstances which might make us uncomfortable. Would firing a worker who attended a Black Lives Matter rally be acceptable because racist co-workers refused to work with this individual? Or would it be illegal to fire someone charged with sexual assault outside of the workplace if that worker doesn't work with anyone else (see the Ontario case of Merritt v. Tigercat Industries)? There are no easy answers here, or in many other areas of legal standards. But I submit that some standards are better than none. 

So the Google engineer, the hot dog cook, and many other U.S. workers should have greater speech and expression protections than is currently the case. But these protections shouldn’t be unlimited. Granted, this isn’t as efficient as giving employers unilateral authority.  As with many other aspects of the employment relationship, we need to find a balance between complex, competing interests. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What Happens at Work Doesn’t Stay There: (Poor) Workplace Democracy Promotes (Poor) Political Democracy

The workplace is not like Las Vegas—what happens at work, often doesn’t stay at work. Nearly 250 years ago, the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, worried that mind-numbing jobs would cause workers to lose the ability and motivation to be thoughtful, engaged citizen-people outside of the workplace (The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part III, Article II). This is perhaps one of the few areas where Karl Marx would have agreed with Smith, and Marx’s rejection of capitalism is deeply rooted in his concerns with the far-reaching, negative effects of work. The detrimental effects on someone’s personal life and on their community might be fairly obvious for workplace injuries, and there is increasing recognition of the mental health risks of lousy work. But does the nature of the workplace affect other aspects of society, like political participation?

Some argue that the workplace can be a breeding ground for pro-democratic attitudes and political behaviors. That is, the use of deliberative and other participatory skills in one’s work can give someone the confidence and the skills to want to participate in the political arena. And hearkening back to Smith and Marx, the absence or repression of autonomous decision-making in the workplace can undercut attitudes and skills that promote political participation, thus weakening political engagement. But does this actually happen in practice, at least to a magnitude we can observe across many workers?

To investigate this, my co-authors and I analyze European Social Survey data on over 14,000 workers across 27 European countries. These workers reported their level of political participation in nine activities (such as voting, contacting a politician, wearing a campaign badge, and belonging to a political party) and also their interest level in politics. Moreover, they also answered several questions on the extent to which they have autonomy and participate in decision-making in their jobs. We combined these several questions into an index of individual voice or workplace democracy.

We then undertake a number of multivariate analyses and find that that employees with greater levels of individual voice at work are indeed significantly more likely to engage in a broad array of pro-democratic behaviors, and we find strong results even when controlling for a wide-range of employee and job characteristics. Or to put this in a negative frame reminiscent of Smith and Marx, dictatorial and authoritarian workplace practices are likely to be related to reduced political participation in the democratic arena.

This relationship appears just as strong as the commonly-accepted relationship between labor unions and political participation. We further show that the results do not appear to be driven by a small number of specific countries; rather, the relationship between workplace democracy and political democracy is one that is apparent across diverse countries, and hence across diverse institutional environments.

These results imply that the importance of organizational practices extends beyond the workplace, and public policy interventions might be warranted to prevent dictatorial work regimes that dampen political engagement. And while we use accepted econometric techniques to account for the possibility that the causal arrows runs from the workplace to the political arena, our findings are still important if causality actually runs from the political arena to the workplace. In such a case, then a participatory workplace should be seen as an important outlet for individuals valuing political involvement. In particular, workplace participation can prevent individuals from getting frustrated or losing their deliberative skills, thus reducing the likelihood that they withdraw from the political arena. So regardless of which way the causal arrow points, the workplace-political engagement nexus is an important one that deserves greater attention.

What happens at work, doesn’t stay at work. Rather, work is an inseparable part of our lives and our communities. As such, it deserves continued scrutiny by all of us. 


Source:  John W. Budd, J. Ryan Lamare, and Andrew R. Timming (forthcoming) "Learning About Democracy at Work: Cross-National Evidence on the Effects of Employee Participation in Workplace Decision-Making on Political Participation in Civil Society,"  Industrial and Labor Relations Review. Click here to read the full paper.