Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How Many Things are Inevitable if Workers Unionize? Just One.

Looking back on the now-defunct (or hibernating) University of Minnesota faculty organizing drive, it’s striking the number of things that were said that implied that certain good or bad outcomes were inevitable. From the vantage point of someone who studies and teaches about labor relations, I only see one thing as inevitable if any group of employees vote in favor of unionization—namely, representatives of the business and of the employees will be obligated to bargain in good faith over terms and conditions of employment. That’s it. Everything else is up to numerous participants in the process—in the University of Minnesota case, this would include faculty, deans, a president, regents, union leaders, and others; in other cases this could include CEOs, other corporate leaders and supervisors, or in the public sector, governors, mayors, school board members, etc.

Let’s consider some things that were said during the University of Minnesota faculty (UMF) organizing drive that implied something was inevitable:

A lengthy process will continue to drag on. Yes, union organizing drives are typically lengthy affairs. The UMF organizing drive started back to 2014, and the union filed for an election in January 2016. The parties disagreed over the definition of the bargaining unit (in particular, should contract faculty be together in the same unit as tenured and tenure-track faculty), and the state Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) finally issued a ruling in September 2016. The following month, the University appealed this ruling to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which then took a year to overrule the BMS ruling. Shortly afterwards (October 2017), the union withdrew the petition seeking an election. So after three years, the drive was formally over and an election was never even held.

So yes, organizing drives are often lengthy affairs. But does a drive have to drag on? Is this inevitable? No. The ball is essentially in the employer’s court. In the UMF case, an election could have been scheduled quickly if the university had agreed to the definition proposed by the union. Employers like the university may feel that they have good reasons for challenging and appealing the unit determination process. But then administrators or corporate leaders need to recognize that they are making the choice to lengthen the process. [As a footnote, in the UMF case, we also have the Minnesota state legislature from several decades ago to thank for unnecessarily limiting flexibility and creating additional legal controversy by oddly trying to write the bargaining units into state law.] Bottom line: a lengthy process is likely, but it’s a choice, not an inevitability.

A rigid, one-size-fits-all collective bargaining agreement will be negotiated. It is common to stereotypically associate labor unions with rigid contracts that spell out specific outcomes in great detail. In the UMF case, this translated into a fear that unionization would take autonomy away from colleges or departments and mandate one-size-fits-all compensation structures, evaluation procedures, and the like. This certainly could happen. But it’s not inevitable. Professional athletes and Hollywood movie stars are represented by unions, and have collective bargaining agreements that allow for individual variation in compensation and other terms. Policies rather than outcomes could certainly be negotiated that empowered employees while allowing colleges to tailor practices and outcomes to their unique cultures, market conditions, and priorities. It all depends on who gets involved on both sides of the table and the choices they make. Bottom line: rigid collective bargaining agreements are possible, but not inevitable.

 Everyone will have to pay union dues. In the United States, if a union is voted in, it is true that it must represent everyone, and if negotiated, a collective bargaining agreement must apply to everyone. So individuals can’t opt out of being covered. But can they opt out of paying dues? In right-to-work states, they can. In the UMF case, Minnesota is a fair share state which means that unions are allowed to collect a fair share fee to cover the cost of representation, not to exceed 85 percent of regular dues. It’s likely that the Supreme Court will rule that this is unconstitutional and that no public sector employee can be forced to pay even a fair share fee (Janus v. AFSCME). In the meantime, it is true that public sector employees in Minnesota can be forced to pay at least the fair share fee, and the same is true to private and public sector employees in other non-right-to-work states. But a union does not have to force this issue; rather it’s something that is negotiated into contracts. In reality, unions likely do prioritize this (after all, they have expenses representing all workers). But once again, this is a choice. Bottom line: mandatory dues requirements are highly likely in non-right-to-work states or sectors, but are not inevitable.

Better off employees and colleges will lose out to worse off employees and colleges. Unions commonly try to benefit the worst off. After all, that’s what social justice is about. But whether this comes at the expense at employees and colleges who are currently better off depends on where the resources come from. It typically seems that university budgets are a zero sum game. If that’s accurate and unchangeable, then winning greater gains for the worse off will likely represent a redistribution away from the better off. But if new resources are created (for example, by stronger lobbying at the legislature) or found elsewhere (for example, administrative expenses), then it’s this doesn’t have to be a zero sum gain. Moreover, the extent to which this is a priority in the union, and how it is pursued, depends on who gets involved and how the agenda is shaped. Similar dynamics occur in any heterogeneous bargaining unit (for example, skilled crafts and assembly line workers; RNs and LPNs; etc.). Bottom line: uncertain.

The best faculty (workers) will leave and it will be harder to recruit new faculty (workers). There isn’t any direct evidence on this. If the faculty unionize and the relationship becomes adversarial, and rigid, one-size-fits-all policies and high levels of redistribution are negotiated, then yes, the university could become less attractive to certain faculty (and more attractive to those who have less power otherwise). If the relationship is productive and things are negotiated that further support and empower faculty in flexible ways, then unionization might be attractive to some people and a non-issue for others. There are many things that determine whether a job is attractive. Bottom line: Possible, but certainly not inevitable.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that there is much at stake in any organizing drive. Unionization could possibly transform important policies, procedures, and relationships. It’s certainly reasonable to debate whether these changes would be for the good, or not. But it’s better to debate them in the context of what might happen and by recognizing that this depends on the choices that many people will make. Not much is inevitable.

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