June 19, 2009 Volume 110 Number 12

Oregon ‘card-check’ law hasn’t led to increase in unionizing

It’s been two years since the Oregon Legislature passed a law giving public employees the ability to unionize by “card-check,” and in that time only 110 workers — at six workplaces — have joined a union through that method. The largest of those is Klamath Community College in Klamath Falls, where last month cards were turned in for a group of 70 workers to become members of Oregon Education Association.

Card-check is an alternative to the conventional elections that are held to determine whether workers want to unionize. In card-check, a union is certified if a majority of workers sign cards saying they want it.

Four other workplaces, totaling 66 workers, would have unionized via card-check, except that a provision in the law forces an election if 30 percent of workers sign a petition requesting one. The pro-union majority held together in three out of those four elections. In the fourth, pro-union office workers at Columbia Peoples Utility District lost by a single vote a bid for their unit of 20 to join Electrical Workers Local 125; a worker who opposed the union was able to get several anti-union workers added to the defined bargaining unit, and that tipped the balance.

Finally, one other unit of four workers would have unionized by card-check, but the employer, Crooked River Ranch Fire Department in Terrebonne, agreed to recognize the union voluntarily before the Oregon Employment Relations Board verified cards.

That’s not much result for a hard-fought law that failed the first two times it was introduced in the Oregon Legislature. Card-check for public employees was considered a top legislative achievement for labor in 2007.

“We were given the impression the floodgates were going to open,” said elections coordinator Sandra Elliot, who certifies public employees unions for the Oregon Employment Relations Board. “They didn’t.”

Danica Finley, organizing director at Service Employees Local 503, said card-check is good policy, even though her union hasn’t yet used it to certify regular public employees. Local 503 did use a card-check process to become bargaining agent for about 4,000 child care providers and 3,500 adult foster home providers. But Finley thinks among state employees, only a few thousand unionizable workers remain nonunion, compared to at least 43,000 who are union-represented. And some nonunion workers are close enough to unionized co-workers at the same agency that they use a different process when they want to join the union — a “unit clarification” election. Finley said if a union campaign gains traction at any of the remaining nonunion state agencies, such as the Oregon Lottery or the Oregon Judicial Department, card-check would almost certainly be the process used.

Union foes have opposed card-check wherever it has been proposed. Oregon ballot measure activist Bill Sizemore has toyed with the idea of running a ballot measure campaign to eliminate Oregon’s public employee card-check process. And card-check has been a central part of the national debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill in Congress.

The Employee Free Choice Act is the most significant labor law reform to be considered in over a generation. As introduced, it would require private-sector employers to recognize a union through card-check.

Business groups have argued that card-check is undemocratic because it eliminates secret ballot unionizing elections. But Local 503’s Finley says card-check is more democratic, not less.

“With card-check, you have to have a true majority,” Finley said, “whereas in an election, just those who choose to vote get to decide.”

Brett Nair, community college consultant for the Oregon Education Association, has helped workers unionize using both methods, and says card-check is a real leg up for employee rights. Last month, Nair helped the Klamath Community College faculty group unionize through card-check. Nair said it was a faster and fairer process than the one he had to use when organizing faculty at Eastern Oregon University for American Federation of Teachers-Oregon.

The old process was burdensome, Nair said, because it necessitated a “double majority.” First a union showed majority support on cards, and then that majority had to vote again. At Eastern Oregon University, employer objections delayed the election seven months — and then workers even had to vote a third time, when a group of anti-union employees came back later and tried unsuccessfully to decertify the union.

“With card-check, you don’t have to establish twice that a majority wants a union,” Nair said.

And the cards make it clear to signers that when once a majority have signed, they get a union — without the extra step of an election.

“I strongly believe that all non-represented employees should seek the benefits of union organization and should organize themselves,” Nair said. “The new law, through card-check, provides people with an expedited and fair process to do that.”

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