Political Hay

Union Blues

A current House bill that limits worker freedom at the behest of big labor illustrates that there are, in fact, differences between the two parties.

By 2.25.07

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Disgruntled conservatives who argued last fall that it would make no difference whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge of Congress should pay close attention this week.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is prepared to vote on legislation that would make it easier for organized labor to coerce workers into unionizing by denying employees the right to a secret ballot election. The legislation, which went nowhere under Republican control, now has 233 co-sponsors and is expected to sail through the House.

The sorry state of organized labor was reinforced last month when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data showing that union membership had dropped to 12 percent of the U.S workforce. This was the lowest level recorded in the more than two decades that the BLS has been tracking union membership regularly and represents a steady decline from the heyday of organized labor in the 1950s, when more than a third of workers were members of a union. American workers have overwhelmingly rejected unions, so the only way for the labor movement to fight back is to change the rules.

Under current law, if a union gets the signatures of at least 30 percent of employees, it can obtain a secret ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. But the deceptively named Employee Free Choice Act currently in the House would allow the NLRB to certify a union if a simple majority of workers publicly sign "card checks." Employees would not be able to cast their votes privately, leaving the process vulnerable to union intimidation tactics. And these tactics need not be as overt as those of Jimmy Hoffa.

Unions can resort to other forms of harassment to influence workers who may not be interested in joining, which is clear from examples in which businesses have allowed unions to organize using the "card check" process. Mike Ivey, who works for the Freightliner Custom Chassis Corporation in Gaffney, South Carolina, has sought legal representation from the National Right to Work Foundation after four years of harassment from United Auto Workers, which has tried to organize the facility. Though 70 percent of employees indicated they had no interest in joining the union, Ivey stated that the UAW turned his workplace into a hostile work environment in its drive to get a majority of employees to fall into line. Friendships fell apart and opponents of unionization were constantly badgered at work, called at home, and even visited multiple times at their homes by union organizers.

As someone who once had the misfortune of being a member of a union as part of my contract with a former employer, I can personally testify to the power of good old-fashioned peer pressure. When my union was in contract negotiations, it asked its members to participate in a silly ritual in which everybody wore red union shirts at the office to show their solidarity. Given my political tendencies, I refused to participate in such a nonsensical exercise. As a result, co-workers would repeatedly stop by my desk in an effort to cajole me into putting on the shirt, while others would simply roll their eyes or look at me in disgust as they passed me. While I never submitted to their demands, virtually everyone else in the office did, including many who privately expressed to me their opposition to the union and recognized the absurdity of such a childish display. I could only imagine how much more intense the peer pressure would have been had the issue been about establishing a union.

If unions believe that workers would benefit from their representation, they have no reason to fear submitting themselves to the democratic process in a secret ballot election, but instead they prefer coercion.

In 1992, United Food and Commercial Workers union organizer Joe Crump let the cat out of the bag when he wrote that to achieve unionization under the card check process, "you don't need a majority or even 30% support among employees." Meanwhile, under the secret ballot process, an AFL-CIO organizing study published in 1989 said, "It is not until the union obtains signatures from 75% or more from the unit that the union has more than a 50% likelihood of winning the election."

The irony is that many House Democrats who support the new legislation have argued in favor of secret ballot elections in the past. In 2001, Rep. George Miller, the chief sponsor of the "card check" bill, wrote a letter to Mexican labor authorities with 15 other members of Congress urging secret ballot union elections. "(W)e feel that the secret ballot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure that workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose," the letter read. Ten of Miller's co-signers are co-sponsors of the current legislation that would do away with secret ballots, including such notables as Barney Frank and Dennis Kucinich.

The fact that the "card check" legislation would be such a high priority for Democrats should come as no surprise. In the 2006 elections, organized labor gave 87 percent of its political contributions to Democrats, representing $56.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. If unions can reverse their decline as a result of this legislation, it would help cement Democratic control of Congress. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has said that if it becomes law, the legislation would enable Democrats to "retain power in Congress for the next 50 years."

Though the bill is ensured smooth passage through the House, it faces the possibility of a Republican filibuster in the Senate. But even if it makes it to the White House, Dick Cheney has already said that President Bush would exercise a rare veto.

Conservative pundits, including this one, took aim at the Republican majority as it deviated from its limited government principles and further blurred the difference between the two parties. But this week, as the Democratic-controlled House moves to limit individual liberty at the behest of its friends in big labor, it is only fair to note that as bad as deviant Republicans may be, Democrats are worse.

Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein