Revised and updated March 6, 2009
Organized labor's highest legislative priority, the Employee Free
Choice Act (EFCA, H.R. 800), would replace secret ballot union
organizing elections with "card check," in which union organizers
publicly solicit workers' signed union authorization cards. If a
majority of a company's workers sign cards, they all automatically
join the union without an election. In public, unions argue that
card check reveals employees' preferences more reliably than the
private ballot. But in private, union activists acknowledge that
workers often sign union cards because of peer pressure or
harassment and that publicly signed cards do not reflect workers'
true intentions. That is why unions argue against letting workers
use card check to leave a union. Policymakers should understand
that union activists know that card check does not reveal
employees' free choice.
Card Check Would Not Solve Alleged
Labor activists want Congress to require workers to publicly
sign a union card to join a union, rather than cast a private
ballot. Unions say that card check is the only way to determine
whether workers truly want to join a union because companies
routinely fire union supporters and intimidate workers into voting
In fact, such firings are both illegal and rare. Data from the
National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) show that employers illegally
fired union supporters in only 2.7 percent of organizing
election campaigns between 2003 and 2005. If widespread
corporate intimidation were a problem, however, forcing employees
to make their choice in public instead of letting them vote in
private would only make it worse.
Unions Know Card Check Is
Nonetheless, unions publicly insist that Congress should pass
EFCA because card check best reveals workers' intentions. In
private, however, union organizers agree that publicly signed cards
do not reflect workers' true beliefs.
Union organizers currently solicit signed union cards from
workers to request that the NLRB hold an organizing election. Union
organizing manuals caution organizers that a worker's signature on
a union card does not mean that he or she wants to join a union or
will vote for the union in the election. Unions have known this for
decades. The AFL-CIO's 1961 Guidebook for Union Organizers
NLRB pledge cards are at best a signifying of interest at a
given moment. Sometimes they are signed to "get the union off my
back".... Whatever the reason, there is no guarantee of anything in
a signed NLRB pledge card except that it will count towards an NLRB
Unions regularly submit publicly signed authorization cards from
a large majority of a company's workers, only to see the workers
reject the union in the privacy of the voting booth. In a study of
organizing campaigns, the AFL-CIO admitted that "it is not until
the union obtains signatures from 75% or more of the unit that the
union has more than a 50% likelihood of winning the election."
When organizers solicit union cards, they visit workers' homes
in groups and put them on the spot with high-pressure tactics. They
only give one side of the story and ask workers to commit
immediately. If a worker does not sign the card, they return again
and again until the worker does. Cards signed under
these circumstances are far less likely to reveal a worker's true
intention than a private vote held after time for reflection.
Unions Oppose Card Check for
Unions know that card check does not reliably reveal workers'
wishes and that it can lead to workers being pressured into signing
a card. That is why unions have argued against letting workers use
card check to decertify their union as passionately as they now
argue in favor of card check for organizing. In a brief to the
NLRB, the AFL-CIO quoted the Supreme Court in arguing that workers
deserve the privacy of the voting booth when deciding to leave
[A] representation election is a solemn...occasion, conducted
under safeguards to voluntary choice.... [O]ther means of decision
making are not comparable to the privacy and independence of the
The AFL-CIO also argued that public cards do not reflect
workers' true choice:
[T]he NLRA representation election system provides the surest
means of avoiding decisions which are the result of group pressures
and not individual decision.
Unions know that private ballots best reveal workers' desires.
And yet the unions disfavor private ballots for union
Real Goal Is More Members
Some see card check as a means of reducing unions' long-term
decline. In the modern economy, unions are harder to sell to
workers than in the manufacturing economy of two generations ago.
Today's jobs require unique skills and talents that do not easily
lend themselves to general representation.
Consequently, union membership has fallen steadily since the
1950s, although it has increased slightly over the past two years.
The proportion of private-sector workers who belong to unions has
fallen by more than half over the past 25 years. Unions seek to reverse
that trend, and they know that card check allows them to organize
workplaces without workers' majority support. United Food and
Commercial Workers organizer Joe Crump openly admits that with card
check, "You don't need a majority or even 30% support among
Crump instructs organizers not to worry that aggressive
campaigning for a company to skip an election might turn workers
against the union because "if you had massive employee support, you
probably would be conducting a traditional organizing [election]
campaign." Unions want card check to make it easier to
recruit dues-paying members, not to defend workers' right to freely
choose to join or not join a union.
Labor activists argue that publicly signed union cards are the
best way to prevent intimidation and harassment and to protect
employees' free choice. Privately, however, they acknowledge that a
decision made in public does not reliably reveal a worker's true
intentions. Unsurprisingly, they have strongly opposed efforts to
let workers decertify a union by card check. Unions seek to reverse
the decline in union membership by facilitating the organizing of
workplaces where the majority of workers do not want to unionize.
Congress should remember this when considering stripping workers of
the privacy and protection of the voting booth.
is Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data
Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.
 J. Justin Wilson, "Union Math, Union
Myths," Center for Union Facts, 2008, p. 7, at www.unionfacts.com/downloads/Union_Math_Union_Myths.pdf
(March 6, 2009).
AFL-CIO. AFL-CIO Organizing Survey (Washington, D.C.: AFL-CIO,
J. Sandler, "Another Worry for Employers," U.S. News and World
Report, March 15, 1965, p. 86.
Sherk, "How Union Card Checks Block Workers' Free Choice," Heritage
Foundation WebMemo No. 1366, February 21, 2007, at www.heritage.org/Research/Labor/wm1366.cfm.
for Charging Parties and the AFL-CIO, In Re Chelsea Industries,
Inc. and Levitz Furniture Company of the Pacific, Inc., before the
National Labor Relations Board, Case Nos. 7-CA-36846 and
7-CA-37016, May 18, 1998, p. 13 (internal quotation marks
T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson, "Union Membership and Coverage
Database from the Current Population Survey," at www.trinity.edu/bhirsch/unionstats/(January 5,
Joe Crump, "The Pressure is
On: Organizing Without the NLRB," Labor Research Review, Volume 18,
Fall/Winter 1992, p. 43.
Ibid., p. 42.