November 29, 2005
New Techniques & New Results on the Labor Front
Posted by Matt Bodie

There's a very interesting article in the New York Times about a drive by the Service Employees International Union to organize janitorial employees at five big Houston companies.  The article reports that the union is claiming victory in their drive to organize over 5,000 employees.  In many ways, the union is using a familiar tactic: organizing all the employers in a particular community and/or industry, thus ensuring that cheaper competitors won't undercut the unionized firms.  SEIU has used this strategy in its "Justice for Janitors" campaign in other cities.  As a chart at this SEIU website makes clear, janitors in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are represented by SEIU and make considerably more than their Houston counterparts.

However, there is a lot about the Houston campaign that represents a new approach to organizing.  The union and the employers have committed to a card-check neutrality agreement.  Essentially, instead of exercising their rights to tell employees why not to join the union, the employers here have agreed to remain neutral.  And instead of insisting on a secret ballot election, the employers will accept a union victory if a majority of employees sign cards asking for union representation.

Although still uncommon, card check neutrality agreements are becoming a much more crucial tactic in union organizing campaigns.  Such agreements give unions a much better opportunity to make their case and ensure that employees are not coerced by employer threats.  The question with these agreements always is: why would employers agree to these conditions?  The details about this agreement -- or lack thereof -- present an interesting story.

We don't really know why the employers went along with the agreement.  It includes a confidentiality provision, so the parties aren't talking on the record.  According to other union leaders, the Houston employers were pressured by building owners and pension funds into signing the agreement; in addition, sympathy strikes in other cities played a role.  Government officials, such as the mayor and several congressmen, as well as members of the clergy also pressured the companies to remain neutral.  According to the NYT, the Catholic archbishop told janitors at a union rally that "God was unhappy that they earned so little and did not have health coverage."

The Times report may be premature; this Houston Chronicle article reports that there has been no determination that the union has gotten the necessary majority.  But a union victory wouldn't be a surprise.  The Chronicle quotes Bill Bux, head of the labor and employment law section for Locke Liddell & Sapp in Houston, who represents several building owners that hire cleaning companies.  "I thought they'd have the cards signed within 30 to 60 days.  How hard can it be to get people to sign a card with all the cooperation they're getting?"

Is this organizing drive an isolated story?  We don't know exactly how the union persuaded these employers to sign up.  But two factors likely predominated.  First, the agreement encompassed the five big players in the market, thus removing labor costs from competition.  While unions can no longer do this at domestic manufacturing firms, there may be some services that cannot be farmed out to foreign workers.  Janitorial work is one example.  Second, community pressure seems to have played a significant role here.  Unions are likely to get more community support when they represent poorer workers, such as janitors or migrant laborers.  That may mean these tactics are not available for unions looking to represent middle-class employees.

In this article Jim Brudney persuasively argues why card-check neutrality agreements should be the wave of the future.  But I've always wondered why employers would ever agree to them.  Although the parties aren't talking, I hope further details emerge so we can understand exactly what is happening in Houston.

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