David Mandl on Sat, 10 May 2008 23:16:57 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Unions Forge Secret Pacts with Major Employers

Good news: Union membership is about to skyrocket!

Bad news: Union members will, um, not have the right to strike or
"post derogatory language about the companies on bulletin boards," and
they will be able to organize only at sites "selected jointly by the
companies and the unions"



Unions Forge Secret Pacts with Major Employers
The Wall Street Journal
May 10, 2008; Page A1

Two of the nation's largest labor unions have struck confidential
agreements with large employers that give the companies the right to
designate which of their locations, and how many workers, the unions
can seek to organize.

The agreements are raising questions about union transparency and
workers' rights. A summary document put together by the unions says
it is critical to the success of the partnership "that we honor the
confidentiality and not publicly disclose the existence of these
agreements." That includes not disclosing them to union members.

The agreements involve workers who provide food, laundry and
housekeeping services on an outsourced basis. The employers are
Sodexho Inc. and the Compass Group USA unit of London-based Compass
Group PLC. The unions are the 1.7 million-member Service Employees
International Union, or SEIU, and Unite Here. The unions say they
negotiated a similar agreement with Aramark Corp. but that Aramark
broke the deal last year, and they're trying to reach a new one. An
Aramark spokesman declined to comment on that.

The unions defend the agreements and their secrecy, saying they've
helped workers join unions in growing industries at a time of
declining union membership in many sectors. Last year, 7.5% of
private- sector workers belonged to unions, compared with 17% 25 years
ago. The agreements have "resulted in tens of thousands of workers
getting unions" and been a major advance for the labor movement, said
the president of Unite Here, Bruce Raynor.

He defended keeping them confidential, saying the companies involved
insisted on that for competitive reasons.

The agreements go a step beyond what are called neutrality agreements.
Those agreements give unions the ability to organize workers free
of employer opposition. Unions often seek these in conjunction with
an agreement to organize workers via card-signing -- a speedier
alternative to secret-ballot elections, which can drag on and trigger
counter-campaigns by employers. Companies often agree to neutrality
after unions bring pressure on the employers from investors, local
politicians and community leaders.

Labor experts said agreements such as those the SEIU and Unite Here
reached open a window on a big debate within organized labor: what
kind of tradeoffs to make when forging neutrality deals, and whether
to let union members know of the tradeoffs.

The SEIU's president, Andy Stern, said the unions sought the
agreements after realizing that traditional organizing campaigns
at individual sites were proving ineffective. "The old ways aren't
working, and we're trying to find different relationships with
employers that guarantee workers a voice," he said. He dismissed the
idea that the new agreements are undemocratic. "These workers have no
unions; that's where we start from," he said.

In 2005, the SEIU and Unite Here created a partnership to represent
workers that provide food and housekeeping services. Then they
approached the companies individually. Since 2005, the unions have
organized about 15,000 workers at Aramark, Compass and Sodexho,
which collectively employ more than 300,000 people in North America,
according to an SEIU spokeswoman.

A key question in the agreements is determining at which sites a union
can organize. Unite Here's Mr. Raynor said specific sites where unions
can organize are selected jointly by the companies and the unions.

The agreements reached with Sodexho and Compass in 2005 give the
companies "the right to designate the sites" where unions may try
to organize workers, according to a confidential summary of the
agreements reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. The companies wouldn't
comment on how locations were selected for organizing.

The agreements, which expire at then end of 2008, stipulate the number
of employees that the unions can try to organize: 11,000 Sodexho
workers and 20,000 Compass workers.

The Right to Strike

The unions gave up the right to strike and to post derogatory language
about the companies on bulletin boards. With Compass, the unions
agreed to these restrictions "anywhere in the world." In exchange,
the companies agree not to oppose union organizing at the designated

But limits are also set. "Local unions are not free to engage in
organizing activities at any Compass or Sodexho locations unless the
sites have been designated," says the confidential summary.

Mr. Stern said that if workers wanted to join a union at a location
the companies had ruled out, having these agreements would enable a
union to negotiate on the matter. "If workers want a union we can
discuss that," he said. "Trust me, a lot more workers are coming in
than being excluded by the agreement."

The companies said they reached the agreements because they support
their employees' right to unionize. A spokeswoman for Compass,
Cheryl Queen, said the agreement "protects the interest of both our
associates and our clients, while allowing us to develop positive
relationships with those trade unions." A Sodexho spokeswoman, Jaya
Bohlmann, said, "We pride ourselves on having a very open dialogue
with the union and their representatives."

The SEIU has added more members in recent years than any other labor
union. But resentment against Mr. Stern has been building among some
in the union, who see him as too close to management and too insistent
on centralizing power.

Some argue that the SEIU is adding new members at the expense of
current ones. "We really believe that Stern and the international
are putting growth in numbers ahead of any other consideration of
what a union means in the lives of working people," said Zev Kvitky,
president of a small SEIU local that represents food-service and
custodial workers at Stanford University. Mr. Stern, rejecting the
criticism, said the union actually is becoming less centralized.

'Not Widespread'

Labor experts said it was highly unusual for unions to give employers
the ability to choose which employees a union can try to organize.
"That's not widespread," said Robert Bruno, associate professor of
labor relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "When you
agree to these kinds of conditions the question is what is lost and
what is gained?"

The agreements enable the unions to organize workers through a simple
card-signing process in which the companies agree to remain neutral,
rather than a secret-ballot election. The companies agree to provide
the unions with lists of employees and access to workers. The unions
give up the ability to strike and agree that they will present issues
before a labor-management committee before engaging in leafleting or

Dave Mandl

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