There was a time when American leftists actively promoted something called “economic democracy.” In their idea of a good and just society you would earn a salary and possess property at their sufferance. The mere fact that you worked for what you received wasn’t important: we all should “democratically” decide who got what no matter who actually produced it.
It’s not a particularly good way to run an economy, as any number of socialist systems around the world demonstrated. There isn’t much difference morally from stealing your neighbor’s car and redistributing his salary. On a practical level, it’s hard to get people to invest generously, take risks, and work hard if society’s most envious people can effectively hire enough politicians to eliminate the reward for entrepreneurship.
Many Democrats moved away from left-wing redistributionism with the election of President Bill Clinton. Despite his personal foibles, Clinton implemented a decidedly moderate fiscal policy. He didn’t mind spending money, but he understood that someone had to create it first. That fact alone constrained his willingness to pander to those who desired “economic democracy.”
However, the fantasy of running the economy more like the government has never disappeared from the left. The populism of John Edwards and the “new” Al Gore runs in this direction.
But there’s one part of the economy where it turns out no liberal likes elections: for workers to decide if they want to unionize. This may be the most consequential decision that an employee makes, but in the view of self-proclaimed representatives of workers it’s not worthy of serious debate. To the contrary, liberal activists want the federal government to order companies to accept a union if labor organizers convince a majority of workers to simply sign a card, through a so-called “card check” campaign. Explains the Nation magazine: “Simple recognition when a majority of workers sign cards is a more democratic process” than holding an election. It’s a bit like inaugurating a new mayor, governor, or president if his representatives convince enough people to sign an endorsement petition whenever they think his support is strongest.
IN FACT, THE BEST LABOR LAW law would essentially be no labor law. Labor unions are entirely legitimate, but don’t deserve federal patronage and certainly should not be sheltered when they, or their members, use violence to intimidate workers and companies. Firms should be able to employ whom they choose, but should not be able to use the police or military to “break” peaceful strikes. Other than forbidding force, fraud, and theft, and enforcing contracts, government should stay out. Whether employees want to unionize and firms want to negotiate with unions, and what are the ultimate employment terms to which everyone agrees, shouldn’t be matters of public policy.
But, alas, virtually no labor issue escapes Washington’s attention. Labor law has resulted from an intricate political dance, changing whenever either labor or business gains ground in Congress or the White House. Much of the struggle has been conducted before the autonomous National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and in the courts. Nevertheless, it isn’t hard to organize: Uncle Sam mandates an election if just 30 percent of employees sign a petition.
The last major attempt to significantly change the law came in 1978 when organized labor sought to regain through politics what it was losing in the marketplace. Labor law “reform” then failed in the face of a Senate filibuster, despite Democratic control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Since then the political struggle has ebbed. Business didn’t need to press for significant changes since organized labor represents an ever shrinking proportion of the workforce: less than eight percent today, which is about half the level two decades ago. Union growth occurs primarily among government employees.
Organized labor developed a political agenda, but had little opportunity to advance it. After all, Republicans typically controlled either the White House or Congress; since 2001 they have essentially run both. Although a handful of liberal Republicans, mostly from the Northeast, backed organized labor’s demands, the GOP leadership had no intention of aiding union recruiting efforts.
But unions poured an estimated $104 million directly into the November elections; far more, acknowledges union consultant Jon Tasini, is spent on indirect expenditures that need not be disclosed. Organized labor expects a return on its investment. No proposal is more important than the misnamed “Employee Free Choice Act,” which would substitute card check for elections, allowing unions to win legal recognition based on a preliminary, and very public, show of hands. (The legislation also includes other remarkably bad provisions, including compulsory arbitration if an employer and union don’t reach an agreement.) Says Stewart Acuff of the AFL- CIO, “We want to remind Congress that this is the AFL-CIO’s No. 1 priority.”
If the government is going to be involved, it’s hard to argue against a secret ballot election run by the NLRB as the best method for assessing worker sentiment. The federal courts have routinely endorsed elections in the cases before them.
One circuit court declared in 1965: “it is beyond dispute that secret election is a more accurate reflection of the employees’ true desires than a check of authorization cards collected at the behest of a union organizer.” Two decades later appellate jurists ruled: “an election is the preferred method of determining the choice by employees of a collective bargaining representative.” A decade later another federal court stated: “a secret election is the preferred method of gauging choice.”
But don’t ask the judges. Ask the workers. A recent Zogby poll found that union members themselves believed, by an impressive 84% to 11% margin, that employees should be able to vote on union membership.
THE ARGUMENT ADVANCED PUBLICLY by organized labor for card check is that elections are, sob!, unfair because of terrible, abusive employers who intimidate their employees. The Nation melodramatically opines: “This is not just a labor issue. It’s first of all an issue of basic human rights and democracy, including freedom of association and speech.” Slightly less hysterical is Stewart Acuff, who declares: “Congress has an obligation to restore the right to organize.” Liberal blogger David Sirota says Congress should “protect people’s very basic rights to organize.” And do so by preventing them from voting on the issue.
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