Campaign Crawlers

Labor Goes for the Brass Ring

This is the election it's been waiting for.

By 9.16.08

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Organized labor spent tens of millions of dollars and untold man hours to help elect a Democratic Congress in 2006. So far the pay-off has been modest. But with the presidency at stake, unions are expected to spend up to $360 million by November, more than twice as much as four years ago.

At the top of labor's agenda is the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act, which would deny employees the opportunity to vote before a union takes over their workplace.

Today organized labor represents just 12 percent of all workers and 7.5 percent of private employees. Labor officials blame their woes on the fact that they must win a secret ballot regarding representation whenever 30 percent of workers sign a union card. So organized labor proposes doing away with elections if 50 percent of the workers plus one sign a card.

Unions dislike secret ballots, which protect workers from retaliation for rejecting representation. In contrast, labor organizers find it much easier to mislead and harass workers to sign a union card. Bruce Raynor of the union UNITE HERE says simply: "There's no need to subject the workers to an election." Ironically, a Zogby poll found that 84 percent of union members believed in certification elections.

ECFA didn't go anywhere this year. But labor can wait.

COME NOVEMBER, the Democrats are likely to increase their margins in Congress, even possibly reaching a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate. Labor also is campaigning for Barack Obama and against John McCain. Bill Darling, the AFL-CIO's legislative director, said that a Democratic presidential victory "could be an opportunity for historic change."

Earlier this year Obama endorsed Card Check, promising: "We're ready to play offense for organized labor...letting them do what they do best: organize our workers." If EFCA becomes law, it would sharply increase the number of unionized employees. Andy Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, predicts that ECFA would cause unions to "grow by 1.5 million members a year, not just for five years but for 10 to 15 straight years." More employees mean more union dues. On average, every one percent increase in workforce unionization would add another half billion dollars in revenue.

Some of that money would go for organization campaigns. Unfortunately, forced unionization guarantees sclerotic economies. Observed Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, ECFA "could trigger a surge in unionization across U.S. industry -- and in time, a reversion to the bloated economy that brought America to its knees in the late 1970s and early '80s and that today cripples much of European business."

Alas, many unions today are as interested in politics as economics. They see the political process as the best way to get what they can't win through negotiation in a free market.

Unions spent over $104 million directly and a multiple of that indirectly on the 2006 election. Labor consultant Jonathan Tasini reported that "unions spend seven to ten times what they give candidates and parties on internal mobilization," which he figured meant "$8 billion to as much as $12 billion on federal elections alone" between 1979 and 2004.

EFCA would enable organized labor to pour even more money into campaigns, spurring passage of union-supported legislation. For instance, unions are pushing Congress to override state laws limiting unionization of public safety employees, open the Traffic Safety Administration to organizing, and reverse recent National Labor Relations Board decisions defining "supervisors," who are exempt from collective bargaining requirements. Labor also has led an assault in the Democratic Congress on the Office of Labor-Management Standards, which enforces laws and regulations against union corruption.

BUT THE OFFICIAL union agenda goes far beyond traditional labor law. Despite the explosion of opportunity afforded Americans through economic growth, technological transformation, and rapid globalization, many unions are lobbying government to enforce economic stasis in the name of protecting their members.

That perspective is evident in the Democratic presidential campaign. During the primaries Barack Obama, who has a 98 percent lifetime AFL-CIO rating, increasingly articulated a populist, anti-business, anti-market agenda. Whatever his intellectual preferences, he is committed to organized labor, which provides much of his campaign muscle. In fact, union members or retired union members accounted for a quarter of Democratic delegates.

In a labor-dominated Congress, initiatives promoting trade liberalization -- such as renewing presidential "fast-track" negotiating authority and passing the three pending free trade agreements -- would die. Congress might even impose new restrictions on international commerce.

A more Democratic Congress likely would hike, not cut, taxes. Personal income and capital gains tax rates would rise. Genuine tax reform would be dead.

A labor-oriented congressional majority likely would restrict alternative capital sources, such as private equity. The Bear Stearns bail-out would become an excuse for enacting the entire liberal regulatory agenda.

Spending would surge. Moreover, as Medicare and Social Security slid ever faster towards insolvency, a union-dominated Congress would turn to massive borrowing and tax hikes. Private Social Security accounts and market-oriented Medicare options would be off the table.

Teachers' unions would block any proposals for parental choice and school accountability. Unions would work to kill consumer-oriented health care, such as health savings accounts, and press for enhanced employer-provided health insurance, which has led to today's cost-plus system of medicine.

Finally, a more influential labor movement would join trial attorneys to kill any hope of tort reform. Last fall the House voted to create new investor liabilities as part of the subprime bailout.

SOME BUSINESSES believe that they can immunize themselves by locking in regulations today, while the GOP still holds the White House. But most of the rules could be changed by a future administration.

Another business strategy has been to hire Democratic lobbyists. Ivan Adler of the McCormick Group, an executive recruiter, told the New York Times: "It's a bull market for Democrats, especially those who have worked for the congressional leadership." But a GOP electoral debacle likely would generate an unstoppable Democratic policy tsunami, irrespective of how many lobbyists business deployed.

Congress should reject card check on its merits. Workers are entitled to a secret ballot over unionization.

But there's another reason for anyone committed to a freer economy should oppose ECFA. Abandoning workplace elections would allow organized labor to intimidate its way to greater power and money which would, in turn, be used to promote the entire left-wing economic agenda.

The vast majority of Americans -- and union members -- support holding representation elections, which protect workers and employers alike. Yet organized labor is working overtime to override the public's interest. If the unions succeed, the public will pay a high price for years to come.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).