An Illinois woman recounted the three-year ordeal she faced to have her workplace's union decertified in testimony Wednesday before the House Education and the Workforce Committee. She ultimately got a decertification vote, but the National Labor Relations Board, the main labor law enforcement agency, prohibited the votes from being counted.
"They concluded that we did not deserve the decertification election because, although the union had a year to bargain and had even scheduled a contract ratification before I filed the petition that got us the election, they still had not had enough time to bargain. The ballots were destroyed, and we will never know the results," Karen Cox told the committee.
The testimony was given as part of a hearing on federal labor law reforms that would substantially raise the bar for unions to claim victory in workplace-organizing elections as well as require them to submit to periodic re-certification votes to show they still had the workers' support. Republicans argued cases like Cox's showed the laws were necessary.
The main reform Republican lawmakers are pursuing is the the Employee Rights Act, which would require all workplace-organizing elections to be conducted by secret ballot, force unions to hold recertification votes if there has been more than 50 percent turnover since the last election, and require unions to get written permission from workers to use dues for purposes other than collective bargaining, among other changes.
The hearing also highlighted the Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act, which would set the time period from when a workplace election is authorized by the government to when it is held to no fewer than 35 days, reversing a NLRB rulemaking that shortened the time period to as little as 10 days, and the Employee Privacy Protection Act, which would prohibit employers from giving away most employee contact information without the worker's consent. Under current federal law, employers are obliged to turn over all worker contact information to unions, regardless of whether the workers consent.
Cox worked as a forklift operator at a cold storage facility in Rochelle, Ill., when she learned that her employer had been unionized by the United Food and Commercial Workers through a 'card check' election. A majority of the facility's 110 workers signed cards saying the wanted a union. Cox contended that the union deceived the workers.
"Several employees had signed cards because they had been told they would just receive information about the union. They didn't know that if the union got enough signatures, 50 percent plus one, the company could recognize them and they could come in without an election," Cox said. With help from the National Right to Work Foundation, Cox obtained the necessary signatures from her co-workers in 2013 to get a decertification vote held that year.
The UFCW appealed to the labor board, which seized the votes pending the outcome of the case, a process that took two years. In the meantime, the UFCW negotiated a contract with the employer. "What they negotiated for us was basically the company handbook — we were paying [union] dues for something we already had," Cox said.
In a 2015 ruling, the labor board said, in effect, that Cox's decertification request wasn't fair to the union. "We find that a reasonable period of time for bargaining had not elapsed when the petition was filed and thus conclude that the petition is barred." She now works for a different employer.
"My experiences with the union at my last job will be with me forever. I am not anti-union, but I believe that all employees deserve a fair and secret vote on whether or not they want to join a union. That's why I support the Employee Rights Act, which guarantees a secret ballot vote," Cox said.
UPDATE: Roger Grobstich, president of the Central States Council of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and Stuart Appelbaum, president of the international RWDSU, the UFCW-affiliated unions involved in Cox's case, disputed her version of the events:
"Much of Ms. Cox's testimony today is patently false – the RWDSU is proud of our continued work with our members at Americold – members who have personally told me what a better life they have now that the union represents them. It is a shame that when just one person has a negative experience it is trumpeted as everyone's experience – I can tell you that our members at Americold are proud to be represented by RWDSU and that what workers gain from joining our union family far outweighs this one voice we heard today," Grobstich said.
Applebaum added: "We organize workers to help give a voice to working America at the bargaining table with corporate America – Americold was no different. We worked closely with members to ensure that the wages, healthcare and grievance procedures we fought for in the contract with Americold were what workers wanted – plain and simple. The RWDSU closely follows the policies and procedures put fourth by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) – always. The majority of the hard-working men and women at Americold are proud of their union membership and we will continue to advocate for their unique needs in the workplace just as we do on each and every one of our contracts."