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Can Unions Win Without the Employee Free Choice Act?

Everybody would rather have the choice of EFCA rules, but unions still have to organize and empower workers.

The Employee Free Choice Act would eliminate the requirement for a two-step process in union drives -- first sign up a majority of workers, then hold an election. But is it the election itself that’s the problem, or the very uneven playing field on which it’s held, where the employer has all the advantages?

At the Smithfield Foods hog butcher in Tar Heel, North Carolina, the United Food and Commercial Workers won election rules that created a fair process and then won the election last December, by a margin of 2,041 to 1,879.

The win came after a 15-year campaign that included firings, beatings, anti-union TV ads, two lost elections, the union’s aggressive corporate campaign, in-plant actions, and, finally, a circuit court decision that Smithfield had broken the law. Labor Notes talked with Gene Bruskin, who coordinated the campaign.

Labor Notes: Would card check have worked at Smithfield, where there was years of company hostility to the union?

Gene Bruskin: We would definitely have been able to sign a majority of the workers. We did it on more than one occasion. The “We’re Voting Yes” handbill we handed out the day before the vote had close to a majority, and so did a petition we did for a shareholders meeting in 2007.

Remember, we had a strong committee in the plant that was challenging management in all sorts of ways. There was the campaign where people risked getting discipline for writing “Union Time” on their hard hats. Committee members were standing up in break rooms and getting people to sign pledge cards to support the union. Workers signed petitions around health and safety and working conditions and delivered them to human resources. People gave interviews for the union newsletter, with their picture, in which they made statements critical of the company. They handed out thousands of copies of those newsletters in the plant. On several occasions they even stopped the lines in different departments.

But the company insisted on an election. They took the position they would never give card check. They felt they knew how to fight an election campaign and win, like they had done before. Even though this time they had to swallow new rules.

LN: In your community pressure campaign, starting in 2006, you had been demanding that Smithfield agree to a fair process -- which you thought would be card check. The company kept saying, “Let’s have an election,” and the UFCW had to say, “We don’t think the normal NLRB election process can be fair.”

GB: Admittedly, despite our best efforts, this was sometimes confusing to the media and even to our allies. For three years I had to explain why we didn’t think an NLRB election could be fair. We said it was a trap. But a lot of people just could not get it, including people who were totally on our side. They assumed it must be fair because it was a secret ballot.

LN: But you did end up with an election, though it was run under different rules than the usual NLRB vote. Reportedly, the agreement said that the election would take place quickly; union organizers would have scheduled access to nonwork areas of the plant; neither side would speak ill of the other; and all formal communication, including handbills and the scripts for the company’s captive-audience meetings, would be reviewed by both sides and by a mutually agreed monitor if necessary. Since you didn’t have card check, which of these was most important in allowing a fair election?

GB: Access was key. It was huge. After union reps were demonized for so long and chased away by the police and demonized in all these ads -- after all that, the actual presence of the union in the plant sent a completely different message.

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