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Management's Responsibility After an NLRB Election

By Msgr. George G. Higgins

The Yardstick
August 30, 1999
 In a statement on political responsibility, the U.S. Catholic bishops have asserted that legislative proposals or policies should be measured by the following criteria:

 --How does the policy touch the human person?
 --Does this policy enhance or diminish human dignity and human rights?
 --Does this policy advance the common good?

 By way of one specific example, let's examine the election rules and procedures of the National Labor Relations Board in the light of these three criteria.

In a fair election workers would have the freedom to choose or form their own organizations without fear of pressure from their employers. But NLRB rules do not guarantee this freedom. Employers can and do force workers to attend captive-audience meetings during work time for the purpose of warning them against forming a union. Employers can and do deny workers equal time for positive messages about forming a union, and can and do silence workers by prohibiting them from distributing information at work about the benefits of forming a union.

Today management consulting firms that specialize in training supervisors to defeat union organizing efforts have become a multimillion dollar business. These firms use intimidating tactics, allowed under NLRB rules, to stop unionization. The U.S. Catholic bishops address these practices in their pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All":

"No one may deny the right to organize without attacking dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably seen in this country, to break existing unions or prevent workers from organizing."

The great weakness of the NLRB rules is that they allow the spirit of labor law to be violated by legalistic challenges and delays. Over and over again I've heard stories about workers being fired as a result of their union activity. I can think of no more obvious violation of human rights than robbing workers of their ability to earn a living for their family and of their ability to participate democratically in workplace governance.

While NLRB rules prohibit employers from firing workers for union activity, these rules also make it very easy for employers to get rid of "troublesome" workers during a union drive. Only a small percentage of workers who have been fired due to their union activity are reinstated. And in most cases they are not able to return to work until after the election, and sometimes months and years afterward.

This brings me to the question of the common good. Management consulting firms create fear, anger and an emotional divide between workers and management that leaves permanent scars. These scars debilitate people, both workers and managers, making it difficult if not impossible for them to meet the true purpose of their work. This is true whether the purpose is manufacturing goods, cleaning hotel rooms or providing health care to the poor in Catholic hospitals. When workers, managers and customers who are patients suffer, this does not advance the common good.

All of this will help to explain why Catholic hospital unions in California, for example, are asking Catholic Healthcare West to agree in advance to remain neutral before and during NLRB elections and, when the union wins an election, to agree to negotiate with the union without legalistic delays. In short, it is not enough for hospital administrators to agree to an NLRB election. They must also help to implement the purpose of the law, which is to guarantee the right of workers to organize and to encourage collective bargaining.

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