Union issues at the University are governed by the Public Employee Relations Act (“PERA”), which is a state law administered by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (“PLRB”).
Step 1: Authorization Cards
Unionization efforts typically begin with an organizing drive during which the union will attempt to garner support among employees it seeks to represent. A key goal of the union during this phase is to get employees in the proposed unit to sign authorization cards or petitions.
An authorization card or petition is a legal document authorizing a union to act as an individual’s exclusive representative regarding wages, hours, and working conditions. Unions must obtain a certain number of signed authorization cards in order to seek an election. However, an employee does not have to sign an authorization card in order to be eligible to vote in an election.
Step 2: Seeking an Election
Under PERA, if a union collects signed authorization cards or petitions from at least 30% of the group of employees it seeks to represent, the union can file a petition with the PLRB seeking an election. This 30% threshold is called the “showing of interest.” At this point, the union will identify the parameters of that group, which is referred to as the “proposed bargaining unit.” Assuming the PLRB does not reject the petition, the PLRB schedules a prehearing conference to determine if there are any objections by the employer to the appropriateness of the proposed bargaining unit. If there are objections which cannot be resolved by the parties, there is a hearing in front of a hearing examiner appointed by the PLRB. If there are no unresolved objections to the proposed unit, the parties sign an election agreement and an election is scheduled.
Step 3: The Hearing
The purpose of the hearing is to determine the appropriate scope of the bargaining unit so an election can be held. After the submission of the evidence and written briefs, the hearing examiner for the PLRB will issue a written decision either dismissing the petition or directing that an election be held. If an election is ordered, the decision will identify which positions will be eligible to vote.
Step 4: The Election
Once the PLRB directs the election, the employer is required by law to produce a list of all eligible voters’ names and home addresses to the PLRB and the union.
The election takes place at a specified polling location or through mail-in ballots. Typically, the date of the election and the location are agreed to by the employer and the union.
If a simple majority of votes cast in the election (not a majority of those eligible to vote) favor representation by the union, the union becomes the exclusive bargaining representative for all of the employees in the bargaining unit. Put another way, while calling for a vote requires signatures of 30% of the full faculty, the outcome of the vote is determined by a simple majority of those who vote—not a majority of the full faculty. There is no minimum number of voters who decide the results of the election.
Step 5: Challenges to the Decision and the Election
An employer who believes that the decision to direct an election was flawed can file a petition for review and seek a stay of the election, but stays are rarely granted. In the more usual case, the election is held. If the union prevails in the election, the bargaining unit is certified and, at that time, the employer can file exceptions to the decision to direct the election. Either party can also file exceptions to the conduct of the election itself, including any challenges to who was or was not permitted to vote. While the exceptions are pending, no collective bargaining takes place and the parties are in a period of status quo during which the employer's ability to make changes in terms and conditions of employment may be limited. Once the PLRB decides the exceptions, the losing party may seek review in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
Step 6: Collective Bargaining
If a union wins an election and any challenges by an employer are dismissed, then the employer and the union are required to bargain in good faith over wages, hours, and working conditions. Many employment policies and benefits would be subject to negotiation, and it is impossible to predict what the outcome might be. Things considered to be inherent management rights of the employer, such as selection and direction of personnel and management of its operations, are not subject to bargaining. There is no requirement that the parties must reach an agreement, and any contract will only contain terms that are mutually agreeable to the union and the employer. Once the union and employer bargaining teams reach an agreement, the union usually submits that to the employees in the bargaining unit for ratification. The contract only becomes effective once it is ratified by the bargaining unit.