The Service Employees International Union, now with 1.8 million members, arguably is this country’s fastest-growing labor union. But there’s always room for more growth – even if it means breaking the law. Walter Coeburn, an employee of ResCare, Inc., a nationwide chain of assisted-living centers, thinks the union and his employer have conspired to do just that. On December 26, Coeburn, aided by attorneys from the National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation, filed unfair labor practice charges with the offices of National Labor Relations Board Region 11 in Winston-Salem, N.C. The West Virginia resident alleges SEIU District 1199 and ResCare worked behind the scenes to force unionization upon company employees at various West Virginia and Ohio locations by way of an illegal “card-check” scheme.
Card-check agreements per se are not illegal, and indeed unions have employed them for years. Labor officials favor them over the standard secret-ballot election as a way to win worker representation because they are less time-consuming and less prone to NLRB supervision. Under the guise of disseminating information and generating support, however, union representatives often mislead or browbeat workers into signing cards that presumably count as “votes” for unionization. What unions explicitly cannot do – at least not yet – is force or bribe an employer into joining or recognizing such a campaign. Organized labor officials mean to change that. Over the past couple years they have stepped up pressure on Congress to pass legislation that would mandate employer recognition of card checks that acquire a majority of signatures of affected workers. Bribery thus wouldn’t be necessary.
ResCare, founded in 1974, is a provider of social services in group-home settings for disabled and troubled persons. The publicly-traded Louisville, Ky.-based company employs nearly 30,000 persons in more than 30 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Canada. Its size has made it the target of intense union pressure, specifically from Service Employees District 1199, representing workers in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. The company in all likelihood viewed collusion with the union, however illegal, as preferable to resisting SEIU attempts to unionize and press greater demands later on.
The SEIU/ResCare card-check campaign, alleges Coeburn, was part of a larger “neutrality and card check agreement,” in which the employer would assist union organizers. “Neutrality” in such a scenario typically requires an employer to give union organizers unfettered access to company property, plus employee home addresses and phone numbers. Moreover, it contains a gag rule precluding the employer from publicly commenting on the process. To sweeten the deal, SEIU officials allegedly provided concessions to ResCare officials, including a promise to deliver a union contract, regardless of employee wishes, once the card check process was complete. This “pre-recognition bargaining,” as it is known, is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.
Coeburn and his nonunion colleagues have gone beyond filing a complaint with the NLRB. They’ve also conducted a drive to decertify the SEIU as ResCare’s collective-bargaining agent. A majority of employees in the bargaining unit have signed a petition requesting that the board conduct an election to determine if the union has majority employee support, as it has been claiming. Right to Work officials at Springfield, Va. headquarters believe that when left to their own devices, the workers will opt out of SEIU representation. “Union officials sold out the interests of the very workers they sought to ‘represent’ in order to force unionization and compulsory dues on these employees,” said Legal Foundation Vice-President Stefan Gleason. “Union organizers’ illegal behavior shows they don’t respect the right of the workers; they just want the forced union dues revenue.” (National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation, 12/26/06).