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The Obama administration’s budget is full of proposals that threaten to weaken
our staggering economy. Higher taxes on high earners and reduced deductions for
their charitable contributions and mortgage interests. A cap-and-trade system
that will impose higher costs on everyone who uses electricity. A national
health insurance program that will take $600 billion or so out of the
But the most grievous threat to future prosperity may be off-budget–the
inaptly named Employee Free Choice Act. Also known as card check, the
legislation would effectively abolish secret ballots in unionization elections.
It provides that once a majority of employees had filled out sign-up cards
circulated by union organizers, the employer would have to recognize and bargain
with the union. And if the two sides didn’t reach agreement in a short term,
federal arbitrators would impose one. Wages, fringe benefits and work rules
would all be imposed by the federal government.
It’s not difficult to see why union leaders want this. Union membership has
fallen from more than 30 percent of the private-sector workforce in the 1950s to
about 8 percent today. Union leaders would like to see that go up. So would most
Democratic politicians, since some portion of union dues–unions try to conceal
how much–goes directly or indirectly to support Democratic candidates. The
unions and the Democrats want to put up a tollgate on as much of the private
sector as they can, to extract money from consumers of goods and services.
They have already set up such tollgates on much of the public sector. In the
1950s, very few public-sector workers were union members. Today, nearly half of
all union members are public-sector employees. In many states and central
cities–think California and New York City–public-sector unions channel vast
flows of money, all of it originating from taxpayers, to themselves and to
Democratic politicians. The unions use that money to promote some public
policies that are not obviously in the interests of public-sector
employees–restrictive trade regulations, for example, which appeal to nostalgic
union leaders who would like to see millions of unionized autoworkers and
steelworkers once again.
In the previous Congress, the unions got the Democratic House to pass the
card check proposal and got every Democratic senator not only to vote for it but
to co-sponsor it, as well. But the votes of all Democrats plus that of
Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter were not enough then to overcome a Senate
filibuster. This year, there is little doubt that Speaker Nancy Pelosi could
again jam card check through the House. But moderate Democrats from districts
where unions are unpopular have gotten her to spare them a vote until and unless
the measure gets through the Senate.
There, its prospects are not so good, now that there is no longer a
Republican president to veto it.
Card check supporters have a list of 15
Democratic senators who have expressed some manner of unease about the issue.
Does Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, up for re-election in 2010, really want to
pass a law strongly opposed by her state’s biggest business, Wal-Mart, long a
target of union organizers? Do Democratic senators from right-to-work states
where employees can’t be required to join unions want to go along?
As for Specter, union leaders have publicly said they’ll support him if he
backs card check. His public response has been to hail the importance of the
secret ballot and the undesirability of mandatory arbitration.
Politicians can read numbers. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reported last week
that 61 percent of Americans think it’s fair to require a secret ballot vote if
workers want a union. Only 18 percent disagree. Congressional Democrats used to
believe that themselves–in the course of a trade debate in 2001, they urged
that Mexico hold secret ballot unionization elections.
Rasmussen also reported an interesting difference between current union
members and non-members. Union members by a 47 percent to 18 percent margin
thought most workers want to join a labor union. But non-members believe by a 56
percent to 14 percent margin that most workers don’t.
Are non-union members deluded? Why don’t they want the supposedly higher
wages and job protections unions purport to give them? Maybe it’s because the
adversarial unionism promoted by the Wagner Act of 1935 is out of date. It made
some sense when employers used time-and-motion study to speed up assembly lines
and squeeze the last quantum of energy out of workers and could lay off workers
But today’s employees have unemployment compensation and are protected by
various anti-discrimination laws. There is a whole raft of employment law that
didn’t exist in 1935, and corporate human resources departments are disciplined
by that law.
As the Detroit automakers’ troubles show, the adversarial work rules insisted
on by the United Auto Workers–a relatively enlightened union in this area–made
them unable to compete in quality or cost with foreign automakers who employ
cooperative management techniques and treat their workers as intelligent
partners rather than as dumb animals, the way the time-and-motion study managers
did in the 1930s.
Card check would give coercive union organizers the chance to impose on large
swaths of the private-sector economy the burdens the UAW imposed on the Detroit
automakers. It would set up tollgates to channel the money of consumers as well
as taxpayers to the Democratic Party. You can see how that would be good for
union leaders and Democrats. But good for America?
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.
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