When the new 110th Congress convenes this week, it can count on intensive and sustained pressure from organized labor to enact pressing agenda items. Unions spent an estimated $100 million on the 2006 midterm elections, with the AFL-CIO paying for about $40 million of the tab. The candidates benefiting from this largesse, directly or indirectly, were overwhelmingly Democratic. Now that the Democrats have regained a majority in the House of Representatives and (to a lesser extent) in the Senate, ending a dozen years of frustration, labor bosses want Congress to deliver the goods. That means hiking the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour; restricting free-trade agreements; and expanding employee health and safety coverage. Most of all, it means passing card-check legislation, introduced in the last Congress by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that would enable unions to obtain exclusive representation of workers without necessarily having to win a majority in a secret-ballot election. In effect, labor officials want Congress to seriously compromise a principle of more than 70 years of established labor law.
A “card check” is a process by which representatives of a union obtain signatures from employees at their workplace, homes or elsewhere indicating a wish to join. Though not prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, this organizing tactic runs counter to the spirit of the law’s one-man, one-vote democratic principle. Union officials long have favored this method over the secret ballot because it typically is less time-consuming, and more importantly, lends itself to face-to-face pressure. For a worker to say “no” when presented with a card to sign, especially from a friend, is tougher than when asked to mail in a ballot under complete anonymity, the latter process overseen and certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Sometimes, a card check is a dress rehearsal for a later election. Given that in the U.S. less than 8 percent of private-sector employees, and 12.5 percent of employees overall, now belong to a union, “no” is likely to be a common answer. Unions obviously don’t like this.
It’s essential to note that merely signing a card does not obligate a worker to join the union. Moreover, while an employer may recognize the union as the sole collective bargaining agent after a union obtains a majority of affected workers’ signatures, it does not have to. That opens workers up to undue pressure from union reps and fellow workers who support them. The more signatures a union can obtain, the better its likelihood of winning representation. Back in 1989, the AFL-CIO noted, “It is not until the union obtains signatures from 75% or more of the (collective bargaining) unit that the union has more than 50% likelihood of winning the election.”
Given the evidence, the tactic works, and that’s why unions want to mandate its acceptance by employers. Unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO gained more than 150,000 new members last year through card-check petitions. A 1999 report by the federation’s George Meany Center for Labor Studies, after examining the results of more than 100 card-check campaigns, concluded that in 78 percent of all cases the union won status as a collective bargaining agent. By contrast, the success rate in secret-ballot elections was only 48 percent. It’s little surprise that about a third of all workers in Canada are unionized; for decades, the Canadian government has mandated card check recognition by employers.
Union officials here dismiss accusations that card check procedures invite abuses. That claim would be hard to square away with the evidence. The Washington-based HR Policy Association in 2004 noted that the absence of federal supervision in union representation campaigns has “resulted in deceptions, coercion, and other abuses.” In a case brought before the NLRB, HCF, Inc. d/b/a Shawnee Manor, an employee testified that a co-worker warned her “the union would come and get her children and it would slash her tires” if she didn’t sign. Labor bosses counter by citing the results of a nationwide survey published by American Rights at Work, a Washington-based think tank founded in 2003. The report concluded that intimidation happens more often with secret ballots than with card checks, and that management is the prime culprit anway. But the union-friendly organization, chaired by ex-Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., appears to have an agenda of its own. The study’s authors, Adrienne Eaton (Rutgers University) and Jill Kriesky (Wheeling Jesuit University), concluded with a denunciation of the “right-wing ideological objective to eradicate labor unions.” If that’s the case, then a good many working Americans qualify as “right wing.” A survey conducted by the Princeton, N.J.-based Opinion Research Corp. found that 75 percent of respondents believed secret ballots were a more democratic method than card checks in choosing whether to unionize. Moreover, a recent Zogby Poll found that a sizable share of employees – 40.4 percent – said they were “definitely against” joining a union.
Popular or not, card check legislation is a top priority with organized labor. Union officials and their political foot soldiers are reminding lawmakers of their IOUs. “We all agreed this is a major down payment on a populist agenda,” said Charles Loveless, legislative lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, on card check authorizations and other issues. “We will all be heavily involved. Everyone is getting marching orders.” The Kennedy-Miller bill, deceptively known as the Employee Free Choice Act, would mandate employer recognition of a card-check majority, and is certain to get a renewed and aggressive push. Top-level Democratic Party chieftains seem eager to reciprocate. At an AFL-CIO rally on November 13, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promised she will “move on card check.” Given the financial support her party received in the most recent election cycle, it’s a promise she can ill afford not to keep. (Washington Post, 12/8/06; Washington Times, 12/21/06; other sources).