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Is Another NLRB Election Really A Solution For These Workers?
Written by Erin Johansson   
December 15, 2004

When a small group of engineers asked for union recognition, their employer responded with retaliation so severe—including threats of job loss, unlawful surveillance, and the firing of their co-worker—that it was no wonder they voted against forming a union when the election was eventually held.  Unfortunately, the engineers had to wait for two years for a judge to find the employer guilty.  And while the judge threw out the results of the election and ordered the employer to recognize the union and bargain with the engineers, the ruling was immediately appealed by the employer.  The ultimate insult for the engineers, however, was the National Labor Relations Board's recent decision to overturn the judge’s ruling.1 The Bush-appointed NLRB members decided that the best solution to an employer seriously threatening and intimidating employees was… another election.

In 1999, the engineers at Hialeah Hospital in Hialeah, FL, decided to organize in order to address poor treatment and irregularities in pay.  Nine of the 12 engineers signed authorization cards to form a union with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (Carpenters). 

On August 31, 1999, hours after the engineers requested union recognition, the hospital’s vice president held a mandatory meeting where he angrily told them he felt “stabbed in the back,” and warned them that he would fire those who he discovered had contacted the union.  The vice president then went on to bribe three engineers to withdraw union support and engaged in unlawful surveillance of another engineer, whom he eventually fired.  The hospital succeeded with these scorched earth tactics, and on November 12, 1999, the engineers voted seven to four against forming a union.  The Carpenters promptly filed charges against the hospital with the NLRB.

More Conflict, Less Organizing

Between 1956—2003, the percentage of unfair labor practice cases processed by the NLRB increased from under 40% to 85%, while the percentage of union representation cases—dropped from over 60% to 15%.2

On April 25, 2001, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found Hialeah Hospital guilty of unlawful threats, bribes, surveillance, termination of a pro-union employee, and other violations of labor law.  The ALJ recognized that before the retaliation and election occurred, the engineers had validly demonstrated majority support for a union by signing authorization cards.

The judge set aside the results of the first election, and because she found the hospital’s tactics “virulent and severe…conduct likely to linger in the memories of all the employees,” she issued a bargaining order rather than making the engineers vote in a second election in which the workers could risk retaliation all over again. 

The engineers had no time to celebrate because the hospital appealed the judge’s ruling. Instead, the engineers who waited over 18 months for justice to be served were stuck in limbo again.  On October 29, 2004, five years after the engineers first decided to form a union, the NLRB ruled in a two-to-one decision to reverse the judge’s decision for a bargaining order.  The engineers, who were victims of extensive illegal threats and intimidation, were back to square one with nothing to show after five years of waiting.

The ruling sent a message to the engineers:  U.S. labor law affords no real protection of their rights.  The engineers saw that their employer did not play by the rules in 1999, so why would it be different in 2004?  As the dissenting member of the NLRB observed, the hospital has “presented no evidence showing a new willingness to allow the engineering department employees to freely exercise…their rights.”

You don’t need a law degree to understand the ruling was unfair to the workers. And you don’t have to be an engineer to realize that to make a repair, the solution isn’t to replace what’s broken with something that’s defective.  Workers like the engineers at Hialeah often encounter threats and retaliation from their employers when trying to form a union.  And much of the reason why workers face such harassment is due to the NLRB lacking the authority to adequately address these violations of labor law.  However, in this case, a good ruling was handed down to protect the rights of the engineers.   Unfortunately, the Bush majority on the NLRB disregarded the intent of the law, overturned an administrative law judge’s decision without merit, and undermined these workers’ freedom of association.

Endnotes

1. Decision and Order of the National Labor Relations Board.   Hialeah Hospital and United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local No. 1554. Case 12-CA-20339, 12-CA-20943, and 12-RC-8398, decided October 29, 2004.

2.  Sixty-Eighth Annual Report of the National Labor Relations Board, 2003.