February 17, 2007

February 17, 2007 | Commentary on

Labor Unions Team With Liberals for Ambitious Agenda

Membership in America's unions continues to plummet, but don't count Big Labor out. Union leaders have joined arms with liberals on Capitol Hill to advance an ambitious but last-gasp legislative agenda.

First, some background: In 2006, union membership fell by another 300,000 (from 15.7 to 15.4 million) and the unionized share of the workforce dipped to a new post-World War II low of only 12%. In the private sector, only one in 14 workers carries a union card.

Soon, lawmakers will send the president legislation to increase the federal minimum wage by 40%, the first such increase in over a decade. In the Senate, labor leaders hope to revisit an issue that devastated several pro-labor Democrats in the 2002 elections -- granting the full panoply of union privileges to federal employees who man the front lines in the domestic battle against terrorists, the Transportation Safety Administration.

But just over the legislative horizon lurks the number one item on Big Labor's agenda -- a bill that union leaders hope will revive the fortunes of America's beleaguered union movement.

The misleadingly named Employee Free Choice Act, written by Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.), who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, would jettison the 60-year old precedent in federal labor law that guarantees workers the right to cast a secret ballot in union organizing elections. Instead, Miller would require employers to recognize a union when a majority of workers signs public statements or cards expressing their desire to form a union, bypassing a secret ballot. Interestingly, Miller actively opposes extending the card-check process to elections to decertify a union.

Substituting "card check" for secret-ballot elections may be the last, best hope for a movement desperately in need of new, dues-paying members. Indeed, as the senior Republican on Miller's committee, Rep. Buck McKeon (R.-Calif.) put it, "supporters of this bill see the card check as a silver bullet through which organized labor will reverse their recently sagging fortunes." Why? As the Hartford Courant explained, "the card check procedure almost always results in a union victory because the union controls the entire process."

Ironically, federal labor law already grants critical advantages to union organizers. Secret-ballot elections to determine union representation are typically held at the employer's discretion once 30% of employees have signed a petition or union authorization card. Employers must provide union organizers with a complete and accurate list of employee names and addresses. The law grants organizers, but not employers, the right to make their pro-union pitch directly to employees at their homes or over the phone. Employers, moreover, are legally barred from even informing their employees of the negative economic consequences that often follow unionization, such as layoffs, plant closures or bankruptcy.

The record suggests that this process works. The overwhelming majority of employers play by the rules. And unions fare well in organizing elections. According to my Heritage Foundation colleague James Sherk, in 2005 not only did unions prevail in over 60% of the 2,115 secret ballot certification elections, but instances of employer coercion or intimidation were practically nonexistent -- only 10 violations the entire year. Yet union leaders continue to maintain that the workplace is "an inherently and intensely coercive environment."

Chairman Miller should study the legislative history behind the secret ballot. In 1947, the committee he now chairs concluded that card-check elections (which at the time were permitted as an organizing tool) deprived "the American workingman … of his dignity as an individual. He has been cajoled, coerced, intimidated, and on many occasions beaten up …" He has been "forced into labor organizations against his will" and "compelled to contribute to causes and candidates for public office to which he was opposed."

There was a time, before organized labor seized upon card check as the primary union recruitment tool, when Miller and a murderers' row of House liberals viewed the secret ballot as sacrosanct. In 2001, they wrote a revealing letter to Mexican officials involved in a unionization battle in which employees at a plant were seeking to switch their union representation. As members who were "concerned with international labor standards and the role of labor rights in international trade agreements," they urged Mexico to "use the secret ballot in all union recognition elections." "The increased use of the secret ballot," they concluded, "will help bring real democracy to the Mexican workplace."

They were right. Somebody needs to ask why they've changed their tune.


Michael Franc who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events