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.
To be up to date on the issues discussed in this op-ed, please refer to President Chopp’s “Statement of Principles” and Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP)‘s “Memorandum of Understanding at Town Center West,” both of which were published as op-eds on The Daily Gazette.
As a lawyer who has represented labor unions since I moved to Philadelphia in 1976, I have more than a passing familiarity with the issues that have been discussed last spring in The Daily Gazette and on the Swarthmore campus with regard to the possible unionization of the employees at any inn established by the College and therefore have the following comments:
- The suggestion – raised by certain Swarthmore Borough residents – that it was somehow improper for the Swarthmore student group SLAP to conduct what proved to be a successful petition drive that might doom or otherwise interfere with the proposed inn simply ignores the manner in which management-labor relationships work in this country. It is simply a question of leverage, with parties using the political and economic tools available to them to extract agreements. In the United States today, that means that unions must utilize all lawful tools to level what is otherwise a playing field tilted by law, money and power in favor of employers.
- More important, I suppose, the position statement issued by Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp, while subtly worded, was not only anti-union and, patronizing, but a rather disturbing example of intellectual dishonesty. While the statement gave lip-service to the concept that the College does not want to interfere with the choice of its employees, the statement (and presumably the position of the College) it is really aimed at insuring that in fact employees cannot really exercise that choice in a meaningful fashion, free from any employer pressure. While the statement may be devoid of overt anti-union sentiments in fact it really contains nothing more than the standard canards offered by employers who reject union efforts to insure neutrality. Employers often assert they are not campaigning but nonetheless reserve the right to do just that. As a matter of intellectual honesty, it would have been better had the College simply admitted the truth, that it does not want a union at the inn, presumably because it does not want a union anywhere at the College. Avoiding unionization is clearly the College’s goal but presumably, President Chopp and the Board of Managers are reluctant to say so in order to avoid offending alumni and members of the College community who take seriously the concept of what have been characterized as “Swarthmore values.”
- In this day and age, employees have access to all sorts of information about union representation. The suggestion in President Chopp’s statement that workers cannot obtain such information is somewhat insulting. Workers are generally capable of obtaining information and, moreover, are the individuals best capable of making judgments as to what is good for them, free of any coercion or pressure from the one entity, i.e., their employer, who, on a day-to-day basis currently controls the terms and conditions of their employment.
- A neutrality agreement (and that is the key, not a card count) would hardly interfere with the right of workers to initiate their own union efforts on their own timetable. Ultimately, any union will have to persuade workers to choose representation.
- The statement by President Chopp that a neutrality agreement “prohibits [workers’s] ability to discuss such issues with managers if they wish to do so” really says it all about the College’s position. The College’s real concern here is that it will not have the ability to campaign against a union. Moreover, neutrality agreements generally deal with this issue as to what should or can be said, something President Chopp and the Board of Managers conveniently ignore.
- The suggestion that a neutrality agreement would result in the College somehow picking the union which would represent the employees of the inn deliberately ignores labor reality. The fact is that there really is no other labor organization that specializes in representation of employees at hotels and restaurants in this area. (I am sure there are exceptions in, for example, Hawaii and the U. S. Virgin Islands but, by and large, UNITE HERE is the labor organization in this field). The College’s objection therefore, the equivalent of the operator of a steel mill rejecting a neutrality agreement with the United Steelworkers for the same meritless reason and, is nothing more than an attempt to rationalize the College’s refusal to enter into a neutrality agreement with one labor organization that does wish to represent employees at the proposed Inn.
- Were the College willing to enter into a neutrality agreement, it could (and probably should as a matter of law) be compelled to include in such agreement a provision that any other labor organization seeking to represent the same group of employees could become a party to that agreement. Yet the College attempts to hide behind the suggestion, promulgated, I would note, by many management representatives when faced with demands for neutrality agreement, that entry into a neutrality agreement ends up selecting the union that would represent employees. As the history of neutrality agreements reveals, such a contention is simply nonsense.
Clearly, the College has no interest in offering anything other than lip service to its supposed principles. Ultimately, its pastiche of clichés, so closely hewing to statements I have seen from other employers that one is compelled to believe that the statement was written by a group of management lawyers, gives the lie to the suggestion that Swarthmore College is an employer any different from most other employers in this country.
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