The Public Policy

It’s Miller Time

Once again a union power grab is under way -- meaning no free choice for workers under the so-called Employee Free Choice Act.

By 6.22.07

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Union organizers never, ever intimidate workers whom they are trying to recruit. Believe me? Great! I've got a bridge to sell you. Sound crass? Well, Big Labor and their allies in Congress are trying to sell America just such a proverbial bridge -- the deceivingly named Employee Free Choice Act (pdf) (H.R. 800, S.1041), on which the Senate will soon vote.

The Democrats owe their majority in Congress in part to organized labor's contributions -- both cash in in-kind activism and get-out-the vote efforts. Now the unions want their pound of flesh, and no item is more important to them than the EFCA.

Why does Big Labor have so much riding on this bill? Because it would mandate an organizing method known as "card check" whenever a union requests it. Facing a decades-old membership decline in the private sector, unions have sought other organizing strategies, and "card check" has been among the most effective.

Traditionally, unions tried to organize workplaces through secret ballot elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. But in recent years unions have been winning only about half of the elections they hold, so now they're trying to change the rules.

Card check circumvents secret ballot elections because it requires only that a majority of employees sign cards showing that they support union representation. Employees are often urged to sign cards publicly and in the presence of union organizers, which exposes them to high-pressure tactics which the secret ballot is designed to avoid.

Moreover, when an employer agrees to a card check procedure, it enters into a "neutrality" agreement with the union -- which isn't neutral at all. Under a neutrality agreement, an employer agrees not to campaign against union representation during a union organizing drive. Thus, the union enjoys an advantage because the employer agrees to remain silent.

But if card check "neutrality" is so lopsided in favor of the union, why would any employer agree to it? To stave off union attacks. To get employers to agree to a card check procedure, unions often resort to what is known as a "corporate campaign."

Corporate campaigns are elaborate political and public relations campaigns that labor unions use to target a specific employer or group of employers. The union doesn't simply picket the employer. Its tactics include feeding allegations of company wrongdoing to the news media, filing complaints with regulatory agencies, and enlisting allies, such as liberal church groups or environmental activists, to publicly denounce the company. The message to the employer is simple: Allow us to unionize your workforce or we will destroy your reputation.

Current federal law allows employers to insist on a secret ballot election. But the EFCA would do away with that

Senate Republicans may kill it through filibuster. President George W. Bush has threatened to veto the bill. But even if it goes down to defeat this time, expect it to come back in future Congresses -- especially if in 2008 the Democrats gain the White House, seats in the Senate, or both.

We've seen this before -- Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the current bill's sponsor, the bill was introduced unsuccessfully in the last Congress. He won't take a "no" as final this time, either.

Ironically, Miller was one of 16 members of Congress who wrote (pdf) to a state labor arbitration board urging it to respect the secret ballot as "absolutely necessary in order to ensure that workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose." Great, you say? Yes, except that the state in question is the State of Puebla -- in Mexico. Apparently secret ballot elections are good enough for Mexican workers but not American ones.

How does card-check work in practice? Consider the testimony (pdf) before House Education and Labor committee of Jennifer Jason, a former union organizer for the hospitality and textile union UNITE-HERE, who left that job in disgust at what she called other organizers' "disgraceful practices":

A "card check" campaign begins with union organizers going to the homes of workers over a weekend, a tactic called "house calling," with the sole intent of having those workers sign authorization cards...

In most cases, the workers have no idea that there is a union campaign underway. Organizers are taught to play upon this element of surprise to get "into the door."...The goal of the organizer is to quickly establish a trust relationship with the worker, move from talking about what their job entails to what they would like to change about their job, agitate them by insisting that management won't fix their workplace problems without a union and finally convincing the worker to sign a card....

Typically, if a worker signed a card, it had nothing to do with whether a worker was satisfied with the job or felt they were treated fairly by his or her boss. I found that most often it was the skill of the organizer to create issues from information the organizer had extracted from the worker during the "probe" stage of the house call...

I began to realize that the number of cards that were signed had less to do with support for the union and more to do with the effectiveness of the organizer speaking to the workers.

This appears to be consistent with results of secret ballot elections that are conducted in which workers are able to vote and make their final decision free from manipulation, intimidation or pressure tactics from either side.

From my experience, the number of cards signed appear to have little relationship to the ultimate vote count...The time allocated for the election to go forward allows the worker a chance to think through his or her own issues without undue influence -- thus avoiding an immediate, impulsive decision based on little or no fact.


Now Big Labor and their politician allies are trying to push a similar snake-oil sales tactic on the American public -- rushing the EFCA through Congress before, to paraphrase Jason, most Americans realize there's a union power grab under way.

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About the Author

Ivan Osorio is editorial director and a labor policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.