Town Center West Panel Leaves Unanswered Questions

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The March 2 labor round-table at the college clarified some things but did not address the main questions that confront the Swarthmore community with respect to labor relations at the proposed Inn.

What is not in dispute is that a large national union, working with a student action group (SLAP), has for some time expressed a very strong interest in having the college sign a ‘neutrality’ agreement that would allow that union to organize a card-check process among the Inn’s workers, without interference or contribution of views from the college. In a card-check process, union organizers solicit signatures from workers stating that they support the designation of that union as their sole representative in collective bargaining negotiations. Once 50% of workers have signed, certification of the union is (if I understand) close to being a fait accompli.

What is also not in dispute is that independently of any neutrality agreement and/or card-check process, the Inn’s workers have the right, under national law, to petition for union status. If 30% of workers sign a petition, the National Labor Relations Board will determine whether the workers comprise a group with a collective interest as appropriately defined, and if so will organize an on-site “Yes” or “No” election via secret ballot, in which 90% or more of the relevant employers are likely to vote. The certification or no-certification outcome is by majority rule.

The panel discussed some of the considerations that differentiate a neutrality/card-check process from the NLRB process. The following four questions were not addressed:

1: The national union and SLAP have been very strongly pushing the neutrality/card-check process. Will signing a neutrality/card-check agreement lead to union certification, while the NLRB process will not?

I ask this because the national union has an intense interest in organizing Swarthmore workers whether or not this will make these workers better off. This interest on the union’s part is both general – organizing one more workplace means more members, which in turn means more fees and more clout on any issue that matters to the union – and specific to Swarthmore – adding a elite liberal-arts college to the union’s list, and especially one with a reputation for progressive values, has marquis value for the union.

As far as I can tell, the union and SLAP would answer yes to question 1, and would argue that the reason the neutrality/card-check process is so important is that (1) unionization is obviously desirable for workers and (2) employers can derail the NLRB process by intimidating workers and otherwise making organization difficult. But is item (2) even relevant for this particular employer? If not, then of course item (1) is irrelevant, because workers can always use the NLRB process. And if item (2) is relevant at Swarthmore (which seems a stretch), then why not advocate a neutrality agreement without a card-check process? To say this another way: unless you have ulterior motives that favor unionization, what’s your objection to a secret ballot process in which workers are protected from harassment of all kinds – from the union and its organizers, as well as from the college?

2: Is unionization in the interests of the workers of the Inn?

The discussion seemed to assume that the answer to this second question is yes – as if the only urgent issue were about alternative ways of getting there. But if there are both pros and cons for workers, how will workers inform themselves about these pros and cons, if a neutrality agreement results in having only one view (the union’s) represented?

3: Is the desirability of unionization, from the perspective of employees, much weaker if the college operates the Inn directly, so that Inn employees are college staff, than if the college operates it indirectly, so that Inn employees are employees of a sub-contracted firm in the hospitality industry?

If the answer to this is yes, then college should certainly not sign a neutrality agreement before the operational structure is determined. In addition, the college may want to consider committing itself publicly and in advance (and independently of any unionization process) to an agreement that would bind any subcontractor to labor standards that are consonant with the college’s values. Most obviously of all, if such a policy already exists at the college, the college should reiterate it publicly, at which point the unionization debate may have little remaining relevance.

4: Is a collective bargaining agreement for Inn employees in the interest of the college?

The college has stated that the Inn project is consonant with its mission – a mission that includes a deep commitment to social justice. At present, no college employee is represented by a union, so it is the college’s own values and processes, supported by those of SLAP and the broader community, that have earned it high marks for employee relations. There must be some disadvantages to introducing a fundamentally adversarial principle of labor relations into a community in which, in all other respects, the central presumption has been one of shared rather than adversarial interests. There also must be some disadvantages to requiring both parties to the local employment relationship to respond to the priorities of a large third-party institution (the union). Are these considerations unimportant, by comparison with any advantages collective bargaining may have for workers and/or the college?

I was grateful for the panel, but I mainly see it as an invitation to focus squarely on these four questions.

Steve O’Connell is a professor in the Economics department.

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