Revised and updated June 20, 2007
Labor activists argue that secret ballot organizing elections are
stacked against workers who want to join a union. Companies, they
allege, systematically fire pro-union workers, threaten to shut
down if their workers unionize, and use stalling tactics to delay
holding votes. At the same time, say the activists, companies
bombard their workers with anti-union messages at work, while union
organizers do not have access to workers to make their case. Union
activists contend that the solution to these problems is card
checks, in which union organizers have workers publicly sign cards
indicating their desire to join a union instead of voting with a
The activists' allegations of widespread abuses have little
factual basis. But even if they were true, forcing workers to vote
in public would not end abuse. Even worse, card-check organizing
would actually make workers more vulnerable to intimidation, not
No Cure for Illegal Firings
The government prohibits companies from firing union supporters
and investigates allegations of illegal firings. Companies that
fire union supporters must reinstate them with full back pay and
hold a new election free of coercion.
Nonetheless, union activists argue that Congress should pass
card check because employers regularly fire union supporters during
organizing election campaigns in order to intimidate the remaining
claim this happens in one-quarter of organizing campaigns. Election
campaigns, they say, do not reflect employees' free choices when
workers fear losing their job if they speak up in support of a
union. The facts, however, do not support these allegations.
Government statistics reveal that most cases of alleged firings
are baseless. Most unfair labor practice complaints that unions
brought before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2005
were either withdrawn or dismissed. The NLRB found substantiated evidence of
illegal firings in just 2.7 percent of organizing election
campaigns that took place that year.
The claim that companies fire workers in one-quarter of
organizing drives comes from a survey of union organizers. Union
organizers are not an impartial source, and, as noted, government
investigators reject almost all of their allegations. Actual
investigations reveal little evidence of employer misconduct.
Even if union activists are right, however, card checks would
only make it easier for companies to fire union supporters.
Companies do not know how individual workers vote in the privacy of
the voting booth, but a union card signed in public is an entirely
different matter. If there is a real problem with companies
systematically firing workers who want to unionize, then the
government should not strip those workers of their privacy and
inform employers of exactly who has signed on.
No Cure for Illegal Threats
Labor activists claim that employers regularly attempt to
intimidate workers by threatening to shut down or move their plants
if their workers unionize and argue that card checks could curtail
this intimidation. Union organizers say that employers make
such threats in half of all organizing campaigns, although they
rarely follow through. But such threats are already illegal and
are grounds for setting aside an election.
Card checks would also do nothing to prevent companies from
making these threats. Abolishing private elections does not address
the problem of employers making empty threats to their workers.
Companies can deliver illegal threats just as effectively whether
employees vote in private or sign up for a union in public.
Delays Are Already Rare
Employers use legal maneuvers to delay holding organizing
elections, say unions. They claim that companies file baseless
objections with the NLRB in order to drag out election campaigns
for months. This reportedly gives employers more time to intimidate
their employees and causes workers to lose confidence in the
prevent interminable delays before a vote, labor activists argue
that the government should replace private ballots with public
union cards that would not be subject to such delays.
But the facts undermine the unions' premise. The typical
organizing election takes place 39 days after union organizers file
an election petition. Over 94 percent of organizing elections take
place within eight weeks of organizers filing a petition. Eight weeks is
hardly an unreasonable delay for a decision that demands
consideration by workers. Congress should not strip workers of
their right to a private vote because labor activists think 39 days
is too long to wait before workers vote.
Publicly Signed Cards Would Not Stop
Employers from Making Their Case
Unions claim that employers have an unfair advantage campaigning
against unionizing during organizing elections. In the words of
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, "supervisors to shovel anti-union
propaganda to the employees whose schedules, evaluations and
advancement they control" and force "workers to attend one-sided,
anti-union meetings where management can legally fire pro-union
workers who speak out." Unions say that card checks would
remedy this problem.
Union activists are right that employers often try to persuade
their workers not to unionize. Supervisors will often hold group
meetings where they inform workers of the downsides of joining a
union. But Congress should not take away workers' right to vote in
privacy because employees get to hear arguments from both sides
during the election campaign. Union organizers will not tell
workers why they should not join a union. In fact, unions train
organizers to avoid topics like dues increases and strike histories
that could persuade workers to reject the union. Employers should be able
to provide their workers with the other side of the story. That is
how democracy works: Voters make an informed decision in private
after both sides make their strongest case.
But even if employers' arguing against unionizing were a serious
problem, card check laws that force workers to reveal their choice
would not solve it. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
guarantees employers the right to present their views to their
workers. So long as they avoid threats, employers would still be
able to hold "captive audience" meetings and "shovel anti-union
propaganda" to their workers just as effectively when ballots are
public as when they are private.
Card Checks Could Reduce Union Access
Union activists also claim unions and employers do not have
equal access to workers. They point out that management can
campaign against unionizing all day long during working hours,
while unions may do so only during break times. They say that
employees cannot freely choose union membership when they do not
get to hear the union case. They argue that card checks would fix
This argument is highly misleading. The government balances the
rights of unions and employers during organizing elections to
ensure that workers can hear from both sides. Generally, union
organizers may not campaign when workers are on company time. But
organizers may speak during unpaid time at work unless the company
has a policy prohibiting all solicitation "not just by unions" on
In addition, the government requires companies to provide union
organizers with a complete and accurate list of all employees'
names and addresses within seven days of the NLRB's order to
conduct an election. If the company refuses, the NLRB will set
aside the election and order a re-vote. Union organizers are free
to contact employees at home or by phone to make their case, but
employers may not. The law guarantees unions the opportunity
to make their case to employees-just not when companies pay those
employees to work.
Further, card checks could make it more difficult for unions to
contact workers. Employees would still spend an average of 40 hours
a week at their place of work. If organizers do not have to file
for an election, however, employers would have no obligation to
provide them with the list of employee names and addresses. Without
that list, organizers would have less access to workers to argue in
favor of joining a union.
If employers truly have unfair access to employees, card check
proposals that would make it harder for union organizers to meet
with workers are not the solution.
Card checks would not remedy the alleged abuses that union
activists say justify its passage. Labor activists contend that
employers systematically threaten and even fire workers who want to
join a union, drag out the election process, and prevent unions
from making their case to workers. These allegations are either
baseless or vastly exaggerated. But even if the unions are right,
card check laws that make a workers' choice to join a union public
would do nothing to solve them. Card checks would actually make it
easier for rogue employers to fire union supporters and more
difficult for unions to contact workers. American workers have a
fundamental right to vote in privacy that Congress should not deny
them. That right should not be denied in favor of a process that
would not address the allegations of problems with private-ballot
Sherk is Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center
for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.