Now that a new owner has been awarded the challenge of running Agriprocessors, once the nation’s largest kosher meat producer, there’s reason to hope that a new attitude toward workers will prevail. It cannot come a moment too soon in an industry that has become synonymous with exploitation and unethical behavior.
The trouble at Agriprocessors — now bankrupt, its former owners under federal indictment for labor violations, bank fraud and other tawdry crimes — is notable for its scope and consequence, but it is sadly not unique. Last month, the company that took Agriprocessors’ place as the largest kosher meat producer, Alle Processing, was found by the National Labor Relations Board to have illegally intimidated employees before a union election last fall.
It seems that the Queens-based company had violated labor law in a number of ways when its workers were considering whether to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union. (The vote was 200 against, 113 for, and 53 ballots in dispute.) So badly did Alle’s management taint the election process that the judge hearing the case ordered a new round of voting.
It is this very question — how free are workers to organize into a union? — that the Employee Free Choice Act is meant to address. Over the years, the freedom to choose has been manipulated by both unions and owners, but the latter has been most often at fault, with its power to intimidate workers and needlessly stall elections.
EFCA proposed several remedies, but most of the public’s attention was drawn to the so-called “card check” provision, which would have required employers to recognize a union as soon as a majority of workers signed cards affirming their desire to join. No secret-ballot election would have been necessary.
The “card check” provision is described here in the past tense because it is reportedly dying a quiet, legislative death, buried by moderate Democrats concerned about abandoning the secret ballot. We share that concern, and if — as is also reported — EFCA is amended to force shorter unionization campaigns and faster elections, then the abuses of the past can be addressed without sacrificing the privacy of a secret ballot.
Business leaders are still adamant that other EFCA provisions — including a requirement for binding arbitration if management and a newly established union aren’t able to agree within 90 days — would kill jobs and damage industry. But jobs are already being lost and industry damaged without the benefit of EFCA, thanks very much. What workers need in this demanding economy is a stronger voice in how they are treated and how they can contribute. Without the distraction of “card check,” and with the promise of a strengthened, streamlined, election process, EFCA can be a major step forward in balancing the prerogatives of management with the rights of workers.