Card Checkin’

This USA Today editorial condemning the “Employee Free Choice Act” gives me an excuse to respond to Ezra Klein’s post on organized labor from a few days back:

I’ve had a couple folks ask me why George McGovern is suddenly emerging as an opponent of the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act and so I’ve been meaning to write a post on the way Organized Labor screwed him over in 1972, but then I forgot and now Matt Yglesias wrote it and so you should all just read him. Also, in future posts, my sentences will be shorter. Of course, the fact that McGovern hates Labor doesn’t necessarily invalidate his argument that allowing workers to sign cards calling for a union would deny them of the right to a free and fair election and open them to the possibility of union intimidation.

Of course, the fact that McGovern hates Labor doesn’t necessarily invalidate his argument that allowing workers to sign cards calling for a union would deny them of the right to a free and fair election and open them to the possibility of union intimidation.It’s a fair concern. But not a relevant one. People seem to get very confused by the word “election” in this context, presuming a workplace election similar to a student body government election, or a Senate election. It’s not. About 49 percent of employers openly threaten to close down a worksite when faced with a unionization drive. Untold more tell individual workers, in captive meetings, that jobs will be lost. 30 percent make good on the threat in real time, firing workers who engage in union activities. 82 percent hire unionbusting consulting firms which teach them how to most effectively shutter a union drive while either technically staying in the limits of the law, or breaking it in such a way that the gains will outweigh the eventual fines. (These numbers, and many more, in this pdf report.)

It’s possible that McGovern’s opposition to the “Employee Free Choice Act” can be solely attributed to an old feud with the AFL-CIO, but shouldn’t we give the man the benefit of a doubt? McGovern happens to be one of my favorite politicians, and his principled (if unorthodox) political history suggest there’s more to his character than resurrecting old grudges.

That said, it’s also worth unpacking a few of these numbers on employee intimidation in the workplace. The “American Rights at Work” statistic Klein cites, for example, only refers to the number of unfair labor practice charges filed during unionization drives in 2003. A one-year snapshot probably has no real bearing on broader trends in workplace organizing. It’s also worth noting that Klein’s statistic only records unfair labor practice charges. Using this number to prove the extent of employer intimidation is a bit like handing down jail sentences right after an indictment.

As to the merits of the legislation, “The Employee Free Choice Act” would allow labor organizers to bypass unionization via secret ballot elections in favor of collecting signed authorization cards from a majority of workers. In my view, permitting union operatives to publicly brow-beat workers into voting for unionization seriously undermines the credibility of the entire process. The potential for abuse in any card-check certification drive has been amply documented elsewhere, but I thought Clive Crook’s take on the situation bears repeating:

A secret ballot protects workers who want union recognition as well as those who do not. That is why opposing it arouses suspicion. Membership has fallen at least partly because workers themselves doubt that unions best serve their interests, and with reason. Opposition to secret ballots does not reassure them. It is a self-serving demand, and plays badly with the centrists the Democrats need to bring in. It is bad politics, therefore, as well as bad law.

This is perhaps the strongest indictment of the EFCA – it’s not only bad for workers, it’s also bad politics. When USA Today – the voice of Middle America, as it were – succinctly and effectively editorializes against expanding card-check, you know you’ve already lost the PR battle.

Klein seems to concede that card-check organizing can lead to abuse, but argues that the disparity between employer and union influence in the workplace justifies expanding the practice. He also laments that opponents of the legislation don’t offer any alternatives for leveling the union playing field. That’s not quite true – over at Slate, William Gould offered a few choice suggestions for labor reform in an Obama Administration. I can’t say I agree with every one of his proposals, but they’re a lot more palatable (and politically feasible) than ramming card-check legislation down our collective throat.

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Filed under Economics, Labor, Participatory Democracy, The Media

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