In the ongoing janitors’ strike at UM, the university and UNICCO (the company that employs the janitors) have aligned themselves in their rhetoric as champions of democracy, painting the janitors as wanting somehow to subvert the democratic process. The janitors are asking UNICCO to agree to recognize a union if a majority of the workers signs cards saying that that’s what they want. This is a perfectly legal method of union recognition and is called a card check recognition process. But it only works if the employer, UNICCO in this case, agrees. UNICCO has not agreed and it and the university favor another method of union recognition, a secret ballot election run by the federal National Labor Relations Board. UNICCO signifies its preference for this method by its slogan: “Let ’em vote.” This echoes President Shalala’s remark that “the university simply could never take a position against a secret ballot procedure supervised by a federal government agency. Secret ballots are at the heart of our democratic system.”
At first glance, it might seem obvious that the President and UNICCO are right. Surely a secret ballot election run by the federal government is the gold standard of democracy. If the workers want something else, doesn’t that mean that they’re afraid to fight it out in a ‘free and fair’ election? In order to understand why UNICCO and the President are not right, we must attend to some important particular facts, and also to an underlying philosophical issue.
The particular facts are these. First and foremost, UNICCO itself accepts card check recognition processes all the time in other parts of the country. Of its 8,000 or so unionized employees, about 90% have been unionized by card check or similar processes and only 10% by NLRB elections. And it’s not just UNICCO that does this. According to the New York Times, last year about 70% of all workers unionized in the US were unionized via card check. So, if UNICCO or the university is suggesting that there is something underhand, or Tony Soprano-like, about the method the workers want to use, they are thereby condemning UNICCO itself and the majority of workers and employers involved in unionization processes today.
Secondly, studies show that employees face significantly more anti-union harassment from their employers and slightly more pressure from union organizers or co-workers in NLRB elections than in card check processes. In other words, card check processes leave workers freer all around from outside pressure. This is particularly important given that the NLRB has issued an unfair labor practice complaint against UNICCO (the labor law analog of indicting UNICCO for a crime) having found “reason to believe” that UNICCO has threatened, intimidated, interrogated and spied on pro-union workers on campus. It is also investigating the company for firing a leading union organizer on the eve of the strike vote and making numerous threats against striking workers. (In fact, until these investigations are complete the NLRB simply will not hold an election, so UNICCO’s and the university’s call for one is somewhat empty at the moment.)
The underlying philosophical issue, however, is what is really fundamental in all this. Speaking of the workers and students who are on hunger strike now, President Shalala said in the Miami Hurricane that “normally, hunger strikes aren’t about process issues.” But notwithstanding the process-centered remarks in my previous paragraphs, this strike is not about process at all. Secret ballots, as President Shalala says, may be at the heart of our democratic system, but they are not at the heart of democracy itself. The heart of democracy is free choice. For obvious reasons, secret ballots have proven themselves extremely useful as ways of allowing, promoting and preserving people’s free choice. But they are a means and not an end in themselves. And like any means, there may be circumstances in which they fail to promote their intended end.
What UM and UNICCO are offering the workers is not a secret ballot pure and simple, but a secret ballot administered by agencies and according to rules and regulations that will actually impede freedom of choice. For example, in an NLRB election (unlike in a congressional or presidential election), only one side, UNICCO, will even know exactly who and how many the voters are, only one side will have regular and constant access to the voters and be able to hire or fire them and raise or lower their pay, only one side will have the unrestricted ability to canvass the voters, and so on. For UM and UNICCO to keep harping on the phrases “secret ballot elections” and “let ’em vote” is to mistake the means (in this case, the flawed means) for the end. Resistance to an electoral process that, owing to the facts of the case, impedes free choice instead of promoting it is not a process issue – it is a democracy issue. The workers are striking to protect their democratic rights. It is UM and UNICCO that are wedded to a particular system or process, regardless of how well it serves democratic ends. The real slogan here should be not “let ’em vote” but “let ’em choose.”
Simon Evnine is an assistant professor in the philosophhy department. He can be contacted at email@example.com.