Lending academic expertise to the Workers for Justice movement, Gordon Lafer, associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center and former Senior Policy Advisor on Labor in the U.S. House of Representatives, contextualized some of the key issues that have severely hindered progress of the unionization negotiations between Pomona College administration and dining hall staff over the past year in a talk sponsored by Empowered Latin@s in Action and several professors on Jan. 25. Lafer’s talk, entitled “Democracy in the Workplace: Fixing Labor Laws in the 21st Century,” described flaws in current labor policy and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) system.
“As far as I can tell, the campaign from the administration is pretty light-touch, but quite a cookie-cutter anti-union campaign for a place like this where you don’t want to come off too heavy handed,” Lafer said during the talk.
Lafer first gave a brief overview of the unionization process. He also noted the motivations for forming a union, which include more than simply improving one’s financial situation.
“When you don’t have a union, it’s not just that you make less money,” said Lafer. “Every one of those things you worry about is dependent on the personal whim of [your] supervisor.”
Why then, Lafer asked, if we have a democratic system, do less than one percent of the people who say they wish they had a union actually get one?
“Most people see that the main barrier to having people’s will recognized this way are problems in the election system of the NLRB itself,” said Lafer. “The more you look at it, the more the NLRB election system looks like the discredited practices of world regimes in other countries than anything we’d recognize as American.”
While federal law states that employers can recognize a union based on anything that demonstrates union support, they are only required to recognize one once workers have gone through an NLRB election, Lafer explained. As a political scientist who has studied the NLRB system for five years, Lafer harshly criticized the current labor laws for ignoring basic standards of political freedom.
In doing so, he addressed what, according to its website, Pomona College administration considers its two guiding principles: that a secret ballot voting process is the most effective way to protect those voting from intimidation, and that the free exchange of information and open conversation is the best way to make informed decisions.
Lafer argued that a “secret ballot” alone does not ensure democratic standards are upheld.
“There are some people who speak as if as long as an election ends in a secret ballot it doesn’t matter what comes before. You can be threatened, intimidated, browbeaten – as long as at the end of the day you cast your ballot in secret, it’s fair,” said Lafer.
Lafer also argued that the NLRB fails to protect workers from economic coercion in the context of a unionization vote.
“Federal and state law both, when it comes to regular elections, recognize that employees are naturally intimidated by the speech of their employers and you don’t have to make an explicit threat for it to have a coercive and intimidating effect,” said Lafer. “Labor law does not recognize this … When you’re completely dependent on your supervisor you have very finely attuned antennae to even subtle changes in messaging. The NLRB has no subtlety in messaging.”
As an example of unfair employer influence in a typical NLRB process, Lafer mentioned captive audience meetings, in which “employees are forced to come to a meeting to hear anti-union speeches or hear anti-union videos.”
“Part of the principle of free speech in American democracy is that there’s no forced listening to political speech,” said Lafer.
Lafer also addressed the use of a vote-by-mail process, which Workers for Justice recently stated it would accept in addition to the card check method.
“Partly I can’t believe I even have to talk about this,” said Lafer. “It just seems it should not be a big deal.”
Employers typically do not like vote-by-mail for several reasons, Lafer explained: they want to have the vote in the workplace, in anti-union settings; management can turn out their workers on the day of the election; employers can ramp up momentum shortly before the vote. In contrast, the voting period by mail is typically a week or two, during which employers cannot have forced meetings.
Lafer then addressed the argument that union supporters may pressure or coerce workers into voting a certain way.
“A union organizer or union supporter has nothing to coerce somebody with,” said Lafer. “Say I’m a dining hall worker and somebody comes to my house and says we want you to sign this thing. I’m thinking on the one hand, if I sign this, my supervisor controls everything about my economic life… on the other hand, if I don’t sign it, this nice student might not like me.”
Finally, Lafer related his discussion of labor policy to unionization specifically on college campuses.
“As somebody who comes from a campus, I think there’s an additional and important cost to a campus community when something plays out like this… if it plays out in a normal way,” said Lafer. “In a place that’s supposed to be about truth and honesty and integrity, I think the danger is what it does. It makes it so that no matter what your major is at Pomona, what the college will be giving you is an education in cynicism.”
Lafer concluded with his assessment of the Pomona administration, which he believes to have clearly taken anti-union measures.
“Why are you delaying, why eleven months after 90% of people sign something are you still having conferences and negotiations and marches and all that stuff?” Lafer asked. “The reason to delay for employers is to depress and demoralize workers and to wait for all you student activists to graduate and the thing to die out.”
“I think having an anti-union campaign is an ugly and disturbing to watch any place,” said Lafer. “But on a college campus—on a place that is supposed to be about intellectual integrity—it also has the added danger of undermining the integrity of the very thing the institution is supposed to be about.”