Card check vs. secret ballots

COMMENTARY Political Process

Card check vs. secret ballots

May 6, 2007 3 min read

Research Fellow, Labor Economics

As research fellow in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation, James Sherk researched ways to promote competition and mobility.

Voting in private is a fundamental American right -- but one workers would lose if a little-known bill becomes law. It sounds outrageous, but the misnamed "Employee Free Choice Act" has already passed the House of Representatives.

The act would end union-organizing elections. Instead of letting workers decide through the privacy of the ballot box, union organizers would ask them to sign union cards publicly -- so-called "card-check" organizing. Once a majority of workers has signed, the union would be recognized -- without workers having the opportunity for a private vote. Under the Employee Free Choice Act, everyone -- the union, your employer, your co-workers, your neighbors -- would know exactly how you voted in a union election.

A private vote is a basic American right. Why would Congress consider forcing workers to choose in public? Because Big Labor has made card-check its highest legislative priority and is using its considerable influence to push the bill.

Labor unions once stood for the rights of working Americans. But as union membership has fallen, they've grown increasingly desperate to recruit more dues-paying members. Card-check deprives workers of their privacy and their right to vote, but that makes it much easier to press workers into unionizing.

Unions now can use card-check instead of an election if a company agrees to waive its employees' right to vote. Few companies do so, but organizers' behavior during these campaigns demonstrates why workers need the ballot box protection.

With card-check, unions know who has signed on. They send organizers to the homes of the remaining workers to press them to join. The organizers give the worker a one-sided pitch, deliberately avoiding anything that might make the worker less likely to join. They press the worker to commit without reflecting or hearing the other side.

If a worker still decides not to sign, the organizers return to his home again and again until he changes his mind. Many workers admit they only signed to get the union off their backs. Workers at the New Otani hotel in Los Angeles had to get a court injunction to stop groups of eight to 10 union organizers from harassing them on their porches late at night.

In some cases, unions go so far as to directly threaten workers who do not publicly sign up. Union officials in Las Vegas told MGM Grand employees that, once the union was recognized, it would have them fired if they hadn't signed. United Steelworkers instructed its organizers to tell migrant workers they would report them to immigration officials if they

The privacy of the ballot box protects American workers from threats or retaliation for voting the "wrong" way. Would you like to have union organizers come to your home and pressure you to join? Do you want everyone to know how you decided? Under the Employee Free Choice Act, you might have to.

A second provision in the act would do almost as much as abolishing elections to deprive workers of choice in their workplace. If the union and employer don't agree on a collective-bargaining agreement within three months of workers joining a union, the act would send the dispute into binding arbitration. There a government official would write the contract and set both wages and working conditions in the company for the next two years.

Government wage controls would hurt both workers and the economy. Arbitration rulings typically take more than a year to hand down, leaving workers in limbo. Arbitrators could easily bankrupt employers.

Worse, binding arbitration would deprive workers of virtually all say about their jobs. The arbitrator's award cannot be appealed. With a union, workers vote to ratify their contracts and can strike for better terms. Without a union, workers can point to their productivity and directly ask for a raise or other changes in their jobs.

But with binding arbitration, these freedoms disappear. You couldn't strike. It would be illegal for your boss to give you a raise the arbitrator didn't approve. You and your employer would be stuck with the arbitrator's ruling for the next two years.

The Employee Free Choice Act is anything but. It would destroy the secret ballot and remove all employee say in the workplace. Large majorities of union members say the current process works well. Why would Congress get rid of it? 

James Sherk is a policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the Washington Times