The November 2008 election, which brought President Barack Obama to the White House and strengthened Democratic majorities in Congress, also means that labor and employment issues that have been waiting in the wings are now moving to center stage. Congress is now tackling some of the most important policy challenges—with some of the most significant consequences—in union history. Labor unions and other affiliated groups have outlined a list of legislative priorities for Congress that President Obama seems to support. At the top of that list: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), popularly known as the “card check” bill, which would fundamentally change the rules for union elections and the collective bargaining process, making it easier for labor unions to organize employees into unions.
The National Multi Housing Council opposes the EFCA as an ill-conceived proposal that would decidedly favor unions at a considerable cost to businesses and employees. Workers in the United States benefit from protective labor and employment laws at the federal, state, and local levels, and they would not be better off if the EFCA is enacted. Unionized employees could be excluded from earning the recognition and flexibility they deserve because those strategic business decisions would be out of the hands of the employer and covered instead by a collective bargaining agreement.
Labor unions have long been dissatisfied with the rules established under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the 1935 federal statute that governs union representation and collective bargaining. Union membership—and therefore union coffers—has diminished considerably in recent decades because employee protections have been enacted by all levels of government, and the U.S. economy has become service-oriented.
No Private Ballot
The most well-known provision of the EFCA would largely eliminate private ballot elections and require an employer to recognize a union when a majority of employees simply sign cards favoring a union.
Under the current law, a private ballot election is mandated in most organizing campaigns. Doing away with the current private ballot system would make employees vulnerable to influence by union representatives and pro-union colleagues. Additionally, the EFCA would drastically limit the period during which collective bargaining would occur following a successful election, imposing binding arbitration by an outside decision maker when an agreement is not reached within the mandatory time frame.
Given Congress’ primary focus on the still-sour economy, it is unclear at this point when the EFCA might be considered. The last time it was considered, the measure died in the Senate because of a Republican-led filibuster. Passage is not certain this time, either—even if the Democrats reach the “magic 60” that is necessary to overcome a filibuster threat in the Senate, there are a handful of Senate Democrats who could withdraw their support.
Unions and the Apartment Industry
The apartment industry has not historically been a target for unions. And because of our industry’s decentralized business model, the relatively few employees that are needed to staff a property, and the typically high on-site employee turnover rate, the multifamily sector is not especially likely to become a union target solely because of the EFCA.
Still, an apartment property could be an attractive union target—a small on-site staff may be less challenging to organize compared to a larger workplace. Also, the geographic proximity of apartment communities could benefit a union campaign. Regardless of the likelihood that the apartment industry will become a specific target, apartment firms should not be complacent about the probable enactment of the EFCA. To the contrary, companies should prepare for change now.
A proactive communications strategy that addresses the unionization issue is smart planning. For example, community managers should be trained to talk with employees about how unions can prevent them from earning a well-deserved reward because in a unionized workplace, rules for granting a promotion, salary increase, and requested geographic transfer would be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
Now is the time to develop a program that reinforces your firm’s values, including the company’s commitment to its employees. Check your firm’s compensation, benefits, and leave policies against apartment industry standards to ensure that they are competitive. Show your appreciation for employees by sending birthday greetings from company executives and acknowledging an employee’s milestone anniversaries with the firm. Renew your company culture. These measures, which inspire employee loyalty and are especially valued by staff during tough economic times, can help persuade your team that there is no reason for them to join a union.
Betsy Feigin Befus is vice president of employment policy and counsel at the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C.