A Statement on Principles

by Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College

The following guest column appeared in The Phoenix and The Daily Gazette on March 24, 2011.

In anticipation of a future inn and restaurant being built as part of the Town Center West project, the student group Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) has asked the College to enter into a "neutrality" agreement with the hotel industry union UNITE HERE and to endorse a card-check approach to union organizing. I write to state the position of the College administration, which has been shared with the Board of Managers.

Swarthmore College has long been committed to providing a safe, healthy, and productive working environment for all who work here. We believe that our community is at its best when individuals are supported in their work; when there is an environment of mutual trust and a genuine exchange of information, opinion, and perspectives on all issues among all parties; and when coercion and harassment by any party are explicitly forbidden. Respect, tolerance, support, and open communication with one another are preeminent values in our community.

As we plan for an inn that will require new employees, we affirm this statement of principles, drawn from existing College policies, for all employees working on our campus, including the future employees at the inn:

  1. Every employee will work in a safe and healthy environment.
  2. Every employee will be provided wages consistent with the College's compensation policies.
  3. Every employee will have the right to voice his or her opinion and engage others in free and open discussion with full, uncensored information relevant to any choice they may need to make in order to make an informed decision.
  4. Every employee will be respected for his or her right to make uncoerced decisions about joining a union or not.
  5. Every employee will have the right to raise concerns about his or her working conditions and to have those grievances addressed fully and impartially.

Under the terms of the neutrality agreement that SLAP and UNITE HERE have proposed, the administration of the College would pre-select for the future workers of the inn and restaurant a specific union, UNITE HERE, and would agree that no member of management would discuss unionization with employees during the union campaign. Depending upon the terms of the contract between UNITE HERE and the College, other stipulations might apply.

Taken literally, "neutrality" in this instance is a misnomer. While the College would agree to remain "neutral" and silent during a union campaign, in effect the College would have already expressed a preference for a union-and a certain union in particular. Such an agreement would afford that union a monopoly or special status as the employees in the potential bargaining unit analyze the question of union representation. As a practical matter, the union's would be the only voice on campus during a campaign, which effectively limits employee access to comprehensive information, inhibits critical analysis of representations made, and interferes with a full discussion of the issues. This deprives employees of fundamental rights necessary for informed choice.

Such a neutrality agreement also pre-empts the right of future inn employees to initiate their own union efforts on their own timetable, limits their ability to request full information about both union and nonunion workplaces, and prohibits their ability to discuss such issues with managers if they wish to do so. Thus, neutrality agreements inhibit, and are inconsistent with, core College values such as free speech, self-determination of staff, and choice. We believe that given our fundamental values and practices, neutrality agreements for the College come at too high a price, compromising both the values we treasure and the positive working environment we work hard to preserve.

SLAP has also indicated that it favors a card-check approach to union organizing, rather than a private ballot system. Akin to signing a petition (though more binding), a card-check system is one in which a card is signed publicly in front of and/or subject to disclosure to peers and union officials, indicating a commitment to a particular union. If the union obtains signed authorization cards from more than 50 percent of the potential bargaining unit members, the union may then be established.

We believe in the right of all of our employees to choose, without coercion, whether or not to be represented by the union of their choice, as articulated in federal legislation and overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. But Swarthmore is an educational institution committed to open dialogue and respect for differences. Thus we believe an election process is best suited to our culture, as it better allows for all views to be aired in an atmosphere of respect, appreciation, and inquiry and then for a decision to be made in private in the election booth. In the past, members of the College staff have also voiced their preference for private ballot elections to protect their right to a confidential choice.

For a further statement on neutrality agreements and card-check versus balloting please see http://www.swarthmore.edu/x32227.xml.

In sum, the College has a deep and abiding commitment to provide a safe and productive workplace. Our statement of principles will govern our practices for employees of the inn as well as employees of the College. If the future inn workers decide that a union can best represent their interests, we will support their right to such representation. But let us give them the chance to be heard and to make their own, free choice in an atmosphere that is open, fair, dignified, and respectful of the values we hold in highest regard.