MAY 14, 1996
Republicans in the Senate have been pushing for a controversial proposal that could change the interaction between management and workers. The proposal has sparked debate both on Capitol Hill and between labor and industry groups. Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports on the debate in the Senate and then leads a discussion between to experts.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, we debate the Team Act proposal. Andy Stern is the president of the Service Employees International Union, representing more than 1 million workers. Dan Yager is general counsel for the Labor Policy Association, a research and advocacy group. Thank you both for joining us. Dan Yager, please start for us by explaining what the law is and why it needs to be changed.
DAN YAGER, Labor Policy Association: Well, I think you have to recognize this whole debate is really about a recognition that American workers are intelligent. They can make decisions for themselves and they can contribute a powerful intellectual resource to the American economy and to the ability of our American companies to compete in a world marketplace, but in order to tap that resource, employers have to be able to communicate with those employees. They have to be able to work together with them on important issues like health and safety, training, changes in, for example, in machinery in, in the workplace.
The problem is the current law in a non-union setting really does not--and that's 90 percent of the work force--does not let employers and employees sit down and work together on these issues. The only thing that is really legal in those settings is for the employer to dictate to those employees exactly what it is they're supposed to do and not take any info whatsoever on them on ways of improving production, ways of improving the services that they're providing.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that's what--and so the law would change it how?
MR. YAGER: The Team Act would, in effect, the Team Act would enable employers and employees to address matters of mutual concern, such as health and safety, training, and those kind--productivity, quality, those kinds of issues. It would retain the existing prohibition, and this is really what gave rise to the law. In the thirties, 60 years ago when this law was written, a lot of employers would try to defeat unions by setting up fake unions, sham unions, company unions, a variety of names for those. The law would retain that prohibition. It would say if the employer sets something up that's pretending to be a union, that's still illegal, but if they're working together on, on these matters of mutual concern, they're not engaging in collective bargaining, that's legal. And that's what we need. The employee involvement in movement is essential to the competitiveness of our economy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What's wrong with that, Mr. Stern?
ANDY STERN, Service Employees International Union: Charlayne, no one disagrees that people should be able to work together, employees and management, but the reality is this is not about teams or "teamwork" any more than when Saddam Hussein sent solders into Saudi Arabia it was really about "them being volunteers." The fact is in the American workplace today, employers can talk to employees all they want.
The problem is employers are not listening. They're not hearing what employees are saying. They're saying that at a time when corporate profits are at record highs, when the stock market is booming, when CEO's are getting 30 percent pay increases while workers are reporting the lowest pay increases according to the Labor Department in history, what the employers now want to do is establish their own organizations and because they're so smart, they want to select the representatives to those organizations, they want to decide what the employees get to talk about, they want to be able to dismiss employees who may disagree with what they have to say, and they want to be able to have a situation where they choose how these operations exist and then be able to alter them in any way they see fit. This is not about teamwork. This is a question about independence. Bill Clinton doesn't select the Congress. They're elected. Employees' representatives should be elected. That's all we're asking, they be independent from the employer.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you're saying, in effect, that the sham unions that this Act was designed to prevent, that the employers are still trying to do this?
MR. STERN: It's a very easy test. If the employers want representatives of the workplace, let them be elected. That's the American way.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Yager.
MR. YAGER: I go back to my original premise. Employees are smart. If an employee is trying to pull the wool over--an employer is trying to pull the wool over their eyes, they're absolutely going to see right through that. Now, meanwhile, employees still have another option. If they want as an alternative or in combination with this interdependent relationship with their employer, if they want to set up an independent structure, a union, the Team Act has absolutely nothing to alter their ability to do that. And they can, they can file a petition, they can have that election, and they can have that union speak for them at the bargaining table. That choice is available. The problem is 90 percent of the work force right now has chosen not to have that approach and, in effect, the law disenfranchises them because it really puts a muzzle on them and does not allow their employer to empower them.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Yager--if the, if the employees can have unions, if that's an option, what's your problem with this?
MR. STERN: I don't have any problem, and I think employees should have unions, and I think employers know that the average union worker makes $5,220 a year more, gets twice as good benefits as non-union workers, and part of it is an attempt to try to thwart that effort. But the other part of this--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why is that? I mean, how do you square that with what he just said?
MR. STERN: Because if employees are so smart, which I agree they are, then let them elect their representatives. Why do we need to create organizations controlled by the employer, negotiating with themselves? If employees are so smart, I'm sure they're smart enough to elect their own representative, decide what they want to talk about, bring independent consultants in to help them, and not have to have the employer dictate all of the terms, conditions of their life.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about that? Why couldn't they be elected if--
MR. YAGER: We're talking apples and oranges because what a union, collective bargaining is about, employees have this interest, employers have this interest. The employees elect a representative to be their advocate for that employer and to resolve wages, benefits, and rules in the workplace. What employee involvement is about is the employer is delegating responsibilities to those employees. It's saying, we're no longer going to have a health and safety director that makes all the health and safety decisions in this plant, we're going to delegate that to the employees, we're going to work with them, we're not going to turn the plant over to the employees.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what do the employees that you've talked with said about this?
MR. YAGER: They love it. I mean, if you were to go into any workplace and see this, you would see how employees that are in employee involvement settings love their work. It's much more fulfilling to them. Meanwhile, the fact that it's making their company more competitive and enhancing their own job security is something that ought not to be overlooked, and this happens in both union and non-union settings, as well.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He's right about that, isn't he, Mr. Stern?
MR. STERN: Yeah. And we're totally in favor of employee involvement. We have nothing against it. It goes on every single day all across America.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So where would you, how would you draw the line?
MR. STERN: The question is whether we're going to let employers establish organizations at their workplace where they pick the representatives, where they decide what's discussed, where they make a decision if they don't like what you say they can get rid of you, they can fire you, they can throw you off the committee. If there are three or four workers and the management wants to figure out who's going to represent the workers, let 'em elect them.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is there any avenue of control of employers, any point of, you know, what's the word I'm looking for, recall? Can they do anything about the things that he's saying?
MR. YAGER: Can the employees do it?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mm-hm.
MR. YAGER: Sure. They can, they can elect a union. I mean, I think the problem is employers are being told--and this Thursday, President Clinton is going to have a group of major corporations together, and he's going to talk about corporate responsibility and he's going to tell 'em involve your employees. Well, companies are hearing that, on the one hand, from the government, but on the other hand, the government's telling them it's illegal, and actually one of the companies that is going to be at that meeting, the Donnelly Corporation, has just been litigating this issue with the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, for the last year.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Stern, is there evidence of why these employee unions exist in what 97 percent of the companies around the country--non-union companies--is there evidence of widespread abuse, the kind that gives rise to unions here?
MR. STERN: No. In fact, that's why it's going on; every day in America, employees are involved in the workplace, 97 percent of the workplace that's true, that's a good number.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That is right, isn't it about?
MR. YAGER: Yeah. That's--some polls have shown that.
MR. STERN: So all we're saying is when the employer then wants to take the next step and form an organization that's supposed to represent the workers, this is America, let 'em elect their representatives. We're talking about going for the next step of having a discussion to having negotiations, to bargain.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But if it's working now, why, why--
MR. STERN: Well, that's why I'd ask Mr. Yager, why change the law, if it's working now, employers--
MR. YAGER: Employers have already taken the next step. Let me give you an example. There was a case that was just handed down about three months ago that said in a grocery store situation, a grocery store had set up a committee, and one of the things that they discussed was how to make improvements in the scanners at the checkout lines. The National Labor Relations Board told that company that was an illegal subject for them to discuss with their employees. Now, if you can't talk about issues like that, nobody knows what it is legal to discuss with your employees.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Stern, do you see this being basically an anti-union thing? Is this really about the future of the union or threats to the union, as you see it?
MR. STERN: I think it is about unions, but more importantly, I think it is about the rights of workers in the workplace, union or non-union, to be able to select their own representatives, to be able to be independent from the employers and to be able to talk about what's on their mind, which is why are their employers making so much money and they're not getting their fair share of the proceeds.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How much of this debate right now is being driven by politics, Mr. Yager?
MR. YAGER: Politics drives everything around here. I think there's no--and sometimes it makes intelligent discourse on issues a little bit difficult, but I think what is--politics has driven this issue to the point where we can talk about it in settings like this, and I think it's the kind of issue that the more people talk about it, and even the President, I think at some point he's going to realize that on this--in this issue, he is opposing workplace cooperation. He's opposing teams.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Stern.
MR. STERN: It is about power. Corporate America has all the power. Workers have very limited amounts of power. We're trying to just say we want to be independent, we want to have a voice, we want to have rights, and the status quo is great for the employers and now they even want to get more power.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right, Mr. Stern and Mr. Yager, thank you.