On January 28, Northwestern football players filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking to form a labor union. Today, the NLRB is holding a hearing to determine the appropriateness of the petition and the proposed bargaining unit. It is likely that one of the main arguments to be raised by the University is that these players are not eligible for participation in a union since they are not “employees” as that term is defined by applicable law. Only employees are entitled to form unions.
A recent report from the Daily Northwestern provides an interesting glimpse into the circumstances that led to this unprecedented test case and the path that led to today’s NLRB hearing. Interesting, although not surprising, is the report of how the players-only meeting – that included the pro-union pitch to the players – was conducted. The meeting was necessary in order to gain signed authorization cards from 30% of the proposed unit (the team’s 85 scholarship athletes), since the NLRB rules require that this minimum level of support be shown in order to file the representation petition.
One unnamed player describes the meeting that occurred two days prior to the announcement that the petition had been filed. From the article:
“According to the current player, the decision to sign union cards was brought to the team on Jan. 26, two days before the [union] announcement. The current player said he didn’t “know much at all” about the process leading up to the vote.”
One graduating player described the union sales pitch to the players like this:
“‘From an outside perspective, they pumped them with all this information about how [the current situation] is wrong, how this needs to be changed, and then immediately after, asked them to sign these cards. It really gave no one time to process the information,’ the graduating senior said.”
This is not unusual. As should be expected, the union is making a sales pitch and rarely if ever provides a complete picture of what unionization will mean for the proposed unit. For that reason, it often is not hard for a union to obtain signed authorization cards from 30% of a proposed unit.
That is where “card check” comes in.
The term “card check” refers to an employer recognizing the union based on receipt of signed authorization cards from more than 50% of the employees in the proposed unit. Currently, an employer may – but is free not to – recognize the union voluntarily in that case, but if the employer refuses then the NLRB conducts a secret ballot election to determine whether there in fact is majority support for the union.
Some elected officials in recent years, including President Obama during his candidacy for President, have promised to amend the law to require employers to recognize the union based on a showing of signed authorization cards from 50% of the unit. The problem is that employees often sign the cards without full information, not always understanding the implications of doing so. If Northwestern football players – no slouches academically by any stretch – may not have understood the implications of the cards or needed more time to process the issues, then certainly many others would as well.
A recent case in Tennessee illustrates as well the danger in relying on card check only. The United Auto Workers presented a Chattanooga Volkswagen plant with a request to recognize the union based on an alleged majority having signed authorization cards. The company refused, and a secret ballot election was held. Last week, the Volkswagen workers voted to reject the UAW. Either the claim of majority status was false – or coerced, or additional information learned by employees through the course of the election period leading up to the secret ballot election resulted in a more informed decision and a rejection of the union. Had card check rules been mandatory there, or had the employer voluntarily relied on the cards, the majority’s wishes would have been ignored as a union would have been certified without actual majority support.
The Northwestern case illustrates again how easy it is to obtain signed authorization cards, confirming why card check legislation, requiring that an employer recognize a union based only on signed authorization cards and without a secret ballot election, is so dangerous to employee rights.
There are going to be other interesting issues to watch with this Northwestern case as the hearing concludes today. Stay tuned for more developments there.