Tech Industry Chafes at ‘Card Check’ Bill

Published June 1, 2009

The technology corridor of northern Virginia is uniting against a labor union bill backed by President Barack Obama.

The Employee Free Choice Act, commonly called the “card check” bill—which lost some steam in the spring but is still alive in Congress—would make it easier for unions to organize where they’re currently unwanted.

The bill would replace secret-ballot elections for unionizing a place of work with a process in which workers publicly sign cards presented to them by union organizers. The bill also mandates that if employers and workers cannot agree on a contract in 120 days after unionization or when existing union contracts expire, a government-appointed arbitrator will set the binding terms of the union contract.

Northern Virginia tech executives say the bill is especially dangerous to their companies, which stay competitive in a “right-to-work” state by being able to shift labor strategies quickly to meet ever-changing consumer demand and industry trends. The Northern Virginia Technology Council, which rarely takes a stance on federal policy debates because it tends to focus on state issues, is actively lobbying against the bill.

‘Dangerous Idea’

Arnold E. Perl, partner in the Memphis, Tennessee office of Ford & Harrison LLP, said the card check bill is “a dangerous idea, especially for the tech industry,” which has been largely unaffected by union drives.

“Tech companies may be ill-prepared to combat union organizing,” Perl said. “Tech companies need to get up to speed quickly and educate their management team from top to bottom about the threats imposed by EFCA on the tech field. This education process also needs to be extended to its employee workforce.”

“Card checks are especially bad for the tech industry because it has been largely immune to unionization attempts, so employees would be more susceptible to the one-sided nature of card check organizing,” said Jack Toner, an attorney in the Washington, DC office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. “The tech industry relies on self-motivated, creative employees who would be held back in a unionized world of work rules such as promotion based on seniority.”

Unions, Tech Ill-Suited
“High pay and great benefits have been the hallmark of the tech industry,” Perl said, but “unions have organized companies before with high pay and excellent benefits, and their opportunities will be even greater under EFCA.

“High pay is not determinative of whether or not [tech] employees will turn toward unions,” Perl added. “The so-called soft-side issues—such as trust and respect—ultimately will determine whether unions under EFCA will succeed in organizing tech companies.

 “It is an essential strategy for tech companies under EFCA to regularly conduct vulnerability assessments of their workforce and use these assessments to implement effective countermeasures,” Perl said.

Reducing the Talent Pool
Card check could reduce the pool of people interested in entering technology fields, Toner says.

“The hallmark of the industry has been to provide incentives in the way of wages, benefits, and working environment, so as to attract and maintain the brightest and most innovative,” Toner said.

Eric Baisden, a partner and labor and employment attorney with Calfee, Halter & Griswold of Cleveland, Ohio, said making it easier for technology workers to unionize could do much damage to America’s position as a world leader in the industry.

“Tech companies need to have the flexibility to adjust and adapt to ever-changing requirements,” Baisden said. “Unions and restrictive work rules and job classifications are the antithesis of this need for flexibility.

“[Union contracts] are typically multiyear agreements that can’t be modified without bargaining,” Baisden added. “This can be a lengthy and contentious process.”

Approving Worker Coercion
Another factor in this debate, Baisden said, is how card check will encourage union organizers to intimidate and coerce technology workers who are largely unfamiliar with union tactics.

“The card check provision will lead to coercion and intimidation by organizers,” Baisden said. “By being able to approach individuals and with no restrictions on what an organizer can say, the concern is that an employee will sign a card to get ‘rid’ of the organizer.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.