Union Politics, Hennepin County-Style

Written by Jeff Johnson on July 1, 2009. Posted in General

Board Votes Down Extension of “Card Check” in Hennepin County

One of the political issues that will soon dominate the news coming out of Washington, D.C. is “card check” (a.k.a. The Employee Free Choice Act), the proposed change to federal law which would, in essence, take away the right to a private ballot for employees in a union organizing campaign.

The Hennepin County Board yesterday had its own mini-battle over a very similar issue. Here’s the story:

Several years ago, Hennepin County entered into what is known as an accretion agreement with AFSCME, the largest public employee union in Hennepin County. Through the accretion agreement, Hennepin County and AFSCME agreed that employees in certain job classes would be unionized if AFSCME could show that more than 50% of the employees in a particular job class had signed “interest cards.”  No union election would be necessary.

Earlier this year, the Minnesota Nurses Association (“MNA”) gained the blessing of AFSCME to “release” a group of 47 non-union nurses who work for Hennepin County from the accretion agreement and allow MNA to represent them. AFSCME already represents a separate group of approximately 50 nurses in Hennepin County.

Yesterday’s resolution would have essentially extended the accretion agreement to MNA, allowing MNA to unionize the 47 non-union nurses by simply getting the signatures of a majority. In other words, the “card check” provisions that already exist for AFSCME would have been extended to another union – completely contradicting the rationale for the accretion agreement which was to limit the number of different unions with which Hennepin County had to negotiate and to maximize the size of bargaining units (thereby requiring fewer negotiations).

The resolution failed on a 4-3 vote.  Despite some significant political pressure, Commissioners Opat, Stenglein and Callison joined me in voting “no”.

While I certainly understand the rationale for Hennepin County’s accretion agreement with AFSCME (larger bargaining units make for fewer negotiations and allow for more uniformity among labor contracts), I am not a fan of it, as I firmly believe that employees ought to be free to choose any union they want and that union election campaigns should be open and vigorous, with each side getting an ample opportunity to state its case to employees, and employees getting to make their choice privately by secret ballot.

Having represented both employers and unions as a labor attorney, I’ve always disfavored tampering with the well-established process of union elections, regardless of which side that tampering favors.

I think yesterday’s vote came out the right way for the taxpayers of Hennepin County. This proposed resolution would have created multiple bargaining units for nurses in Hennepin County (both the AFSCME unit and the MNA unit) and would have set a potential precedent for other unions in the future. As long as we have an accretion agreement that makes unionizing much easier in exchange for keeping bargaining units larger and limiting the number of different unions in the county, we should abide by it.

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