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As Pandemic Continues, Unions Urge End to Ban on Electronic Representation Voting

May 8, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

WASHINGTON—With in-person voting hampered by social distancing, a group of 14 major labor unions is urging Congress to direct the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] to develop procedures for electronic voting in union-representation elections, which is currently prohibited.

“During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s more important than ever that workers have the right to form unions and have a strong voice on the job if they choose.”

“During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s more important than ever that workers have the right to form unions and have a strong voice on the job if they choose,” they said in a letter sent May 6 to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy. Yet the epidemic and restrictions on in-person contact have “made it extraordinarily difficult to form unions,” it continued, and a number of employers where workers signed cards requesting union representation have refused to hold mail ballot elections.

“In this context, it makes no sense to deny workers access to a safe and efficient process for conducting representation elections,” they added. The National Mediation Board, which oversees those elections in railroads and airlines, has successfully held them electronically “for over a decade,” it noted. 

The 14 unions who signed included the AFL-CIO and ten of the twelve largest U.S. unions: the National Education Association, SEIU, AFSCME, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the United Auto Workers, the Steelworkers, the American Federation of Teachers, the International Association of Machinists, and the Communications Workers of America. The International Union of Operating Engineers and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers joined them.

They urged Congress to include funding for the NLRB to develop electronic-election procedures in the next epidemic-relief package legislation.

The NLRB had taken the opposite tack: In mid-March, it suspended all representation elections. It withdrew that order two weeks later, allowing them to resume beginning Apr. 6.

An NLRB spokesperson told LaborPress that the board had no opinion on allowing electronic voting because “this is a matter for Congress.” He said it also had no estimate on how much developing procedures for such elections would cost.

A federal appropriations bill passed last December prohibits the labor board from using any funds “to issue any new administrative directive or regulation that would provide employees any means of voting through any electronic means” in union-representation elections.

Among the employers refusing to allow elections by mail is the Gannett newspaper chain. Votes scheduled for Mar. 18 at two papers in Palm Beach, Fla., on whether to join the Palm Beach News Guild, a CWA affiliate, were cancelled by the NLRB. On Mar. 26, Gannett lawyers filed motions asking the board to prevent mail elections at the Naples Daily News, two other Southwest Florida newspapers, and the Wilmington News Journal in Delaware. An in-person vote at the News Journal is scheduled for June 21, but a Delaware NewsGuild member told CNN last month she didn’t think social-distancing restrictions would be reduced enough to enable it to happen.

“At my company, Gannett has used the coronavirus as an excuse to cancel three union elections, all while the company forces furloughs and fails to provide necessary protective equipment for journalists,” Andrew Pantazi, a NewsGuild member and reporter at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, said in a CWA statement Apr. 21.

Establishing electronic voting procedures has significant but heavily partisan support in the House. On April 20, 168 House members, led by Reps. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.), signed a letter to Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader McCarthy, urging them to repeal the appropriations bill’s ban on electronic voting and “bring the NLRB into the 21st century.”

“Given the current constraints on workers’ ability to exercise their rights during this pandemic, there is a legitimate need for accommodating the rights of workers and protecting NLRB employees during union representation elections,” they wrote. Some representation votes at railroads and airlines have been conducted by telephone since 2002 and by Internet since 2007, they noted.

All but five of the signers were Democrats, with Peter King of Long Island and Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey among the Republicans. All 12 House members from New York City signed.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, passed by the House in February, also would require representation elections to be held electronically or by certified mail if the union involved requests that from the NLRB. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has not held a hearing on the bill since it was referred there in May 2019.

May 8, 2020

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