Trains, planes, unions and votes

On Monday, the National Mediation Board changed a 76-year-old policy governing how airline and railway workers can organize into unions. Not surprisingly, a train full of emails from pro and anti-union legislators, think-tanks, advocacy groups, business groups and unions are flying in.  One thing that isn't changing is that the decision must be made by a vote. What is changing is how the vote takes place. You can read about it here.

The new rule is that unionization will be based on the desires of the people who trouble themselves to vote.

One thing to note about the change. It is not an endorsement of the controversial card-check idea, which proposes that companies recognize unions if a majority of workers sign a petition. The new policy underscores the value of an election-based system. The key is that voting matters -- in the workplace, as in politics. If election day comes around and voters sit home and suck their thumbs (or do whatever else they do), they can't rightly grouse about the outcome.

In the past, for a union to be recognized as a bargaining agent, the majority of the entire workforce had to vote in favor of it. The result? Anyone who did not vote counted as a "no." Imagine if the rule had been the other way. Suppose that anyone who did not vote was counted as a "yes." If that were the case, unions would be howling about this rule change. But because the non-vote is a no vote, the howling is coming from the business interests, including the American Transport Association. They plan to sue to stop the change.

Under the new policy, if a majority of voters want to unionize, the union is in. Otherwise, it's not. If one side or another doesn't care enough to vote, then that viewpoint will be lost. 

Yes, this may make it easier for unions to organize. It may also make it easier for union decertifications. The battle will be passion versus apathy, no matter which side brings the passion, no matter which side is apathetic. Typically, an election begins when a union organizes enough workers to sign a petition asking for elections -- a relatively small amount of workers are required. Most unions won't even go for an election unless they get way over half the workers to sign a petition seeking an election, because unions know they need to bring passion and numbers in order to win. 

We can assume that any group, for or against unions, that has the passion to organize will have a leg up in an election -- and that's probably particularly true in a transportation workforce which tends to be scattered.