Vt. House rejects Sunderland bill on union votes
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | March 24,2007
MONTPELIER — A Rutland Town lawmaker unsuccessfully tried Friday to stall a change in the way state employees unionize.
One day after the Vermont House voted to allow state employees to unionize with a card-check method, Rep. David Sunderland, R-Rutland Town, proposed an amendment to spend the next year studying the issue before enacting the legislation.
Sunderland said he was concerned the House was acting too quickly and without all the facts.
"I wanted to have this issue looked at in a nonpartisan manner before we voted on something that may not even be a problem," Sunderland said Friday afternoon, shortly after the House voted 82-55 against his amendment. "We're still not clear on what the facts are that this bill is supposed to address."
The 90-minute debate over the union bill featured lawmakers on both sides of the issue claiming they were speaking on behalf of union employees.
Several lawmakers cited their or their families' experiences with unions, which varied from tales of oppressive management busting down on union activity, to pressure from workers to fall in line with collective-bargaining mentality.
Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, cited a recent news report on the growing income disparity in Vermont. He said one way to combat that trend is to support unionization efforts, which lead to higher wages, better benefits and happier workplaces.
Relying on a card check system of forming unions — as opposed to the traditional secret ballot election that occurs after workers announce their intention to unionize — is a fairer system, he added.
"Why fear majority rule?" he asked. "Right now, management has all the power in the relationship."
Rep. Margaret Flory, R-Pittsford, noted that she has two sons who are very active in unions. And while she does not consider herself "anti-union," the bill passed this week by the House "confuses and concerns" her, she said.
She said the secret ballot election is the best way to ensure that workers want a union.
"Workers need to ask themselves, is this the bargaining unit you want to join?" she said. "And if so, is this the union you want representing you? We really need another year to study this issue."
The House bill, which has yet to be approved by the Vermont Senate or signed into law by Gov. James Douglas, would allow state employees — specifically staff at the University of Vermont and state colleges — to form unions by getting more than 50 percent of the staff to sign union cards.
Supporters of the change said they hope it will lead to more unionization efforts in the state; opponents from the business community expressed concerns this week the bill was a "slippery slope" to changing federal law to allow private-sector employees to unionize with the card-check system, too.
Sunderland's amendment called for a bipartisan committee that would study the issue this year and report back to House and Senate committees in January 2008.
"The people I talked to back home were confused about the bill," Sunderland said. "And my colleagues told me that they have heard from union members who don't support this bill as well."
Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, theorized that some opposition to the bill comes from confusion over what it really would do. Secret ballots can still be used to unionize state employees, he said, if the card check effort nets at least 30 percent of employees and not the required 50 percent.
Studying the issue serves no purpose except to put off the day when state workers get this right, he said.
"We're already accused of doing too much studying and not getting anything done," he said.
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.email@example.com.