'Free choice' proposal spurs debate on unions

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LANSING — The federal Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for workers to join unions, but some business groups say it would invade workers’ privacy.

The legislation pending in Congress would allow union elections to happen as soon as a majority of employees sign cards saying it’s what they want, said Brent Gillette, statewide political director for Michigan’s AFL-CIO.

It would take away the employer’s present right to decide whether to use a card-signing process or to hold secret elections and put the decision in the hands of the worker. If half the employees say they want a union, the employer and the union have 90 days to negotiate a contract.

As the fourth most unionized state in the country, Michigan workers and advocates are joining the conversation.

Chuck Hadden, president of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said the bill would be bad for business. “It tips the balance too far to the unions” by making it easier to organize, he said.

And if workers decide to have an open election, the employers would see the votes.

Management at Dawn Food Products Inc. in Jackson says the Employee Free Choice Act would eliminate the employee’s democratic rights to a secret ballot. The company supplies ingredients to bakeries across the world.

Dawn Food’s non-unionized employees have campaigned to unionize in the past, but issues were worked out internally, according to Stephen Lee, communications manager.

Other opponents say it would unfairly strengthen unions and the power of unions by targeting and intimidating workers who don’t want to join. But supporters of the proposal say that although it’s illegal, corporate managers often intimidate workers into not joining unions.

Though Michigan ranks high in number of unionized employees, Gillette said, it would be higher if corporations didn’t have the power to intimidate and retaliate against those who want to join.

The new legislation would penalize bosses who violate the law, he said.

“The current system is broken. The only way you can voice your opinion in the workplace today is to organize.”

When employees do unionize, he said, 30 percent make more money and about half get health care and pensions. If they didn’t feel threatened, 53 percent would join, and 77 percent say joining should be the employee’s choice, Gillette said.

But high rates of state unionization may result in losing prospective employers. Because unions usually mean higher wages, some businesses might shy away form locating in Michigan, said Richard Block, professor of labor and industrial relations at Michigan State University.

David Reynolds, professor of labor studies at Wayne State University, said he doesn’t see why someone wouldn’t want to join a union.

“It’s simple,” he said. “The unionized workers get higher wages and benefits and the security of knowing they won’t just be fired the next day.”

But Ken Roupe, a Flat Rock resident and member of the Teamsters union, said he joined because he didn’t have a choice and has a hard time appreciating union involvement.

“It supposedly keeps my job security and would take care of problems such as harassment,” he said.

If union elections weren’t secret, Roupe said, he would feel uncomfortable voting.

The bill, which would overhaul the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, awaits approval by Congress. Michigan’s co-sponsors are Reps. John Conyers, D-Detroit, John Dingell, D-Dearborn, Dale Kildee, D-Flint, Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Detroit, Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek and Bart Stupak, D-Menominee.

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