Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Circuitous Game Of Card Checks

Earnings of America's blue collar working class has lost ground in recent years because of a variety of factors, one of which is the decline of organized labor as the nation shifts from a manufacturing to a service-oriented economy.

To reverse this trend, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, labor leaders and a Democratic-controlled Congress are pushing for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act — also known as "card check."

It is akin to a child of divorced parents, forced to decide between his mother or father.

It is more complicated than the simple explanation that it would allow a majority of workplace employees to sign cards to join a union instead of holding secret ballot elections.

I went to Wikipedia for this definition:

Under the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), if the National Labor Relations Board verifies that over 50% of the employees signed authorization cards, the secret ballot election is bypassed and a union is automatically formed. Introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2005 and reintroduced in 2007 and 2009, the EFCA provides that the NLRB would recognize the union's role as the official bargaining representative if a majority of employees have authorized that representation via majority sign-up (card check), without requiring a secret ballot election. Under The EFCA, if over 30% and less than 50% of employees sign a petition or authorization cards, the NLRB would still order a secret ballot election for union representation. In other words, the current threshold to have a secret ballot election is signatures from 30% of employees. The EFCA would keep that threshold, but make a new threshold of signatures from 50% + 1 of employees to bypass the secret ballot election and automatically be unionized. Therefore a petition signature would have the same weight as a "yes" vote in a secret ballot election.

Speaking before the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which has about 1.6 million members, Biden said it's time to "level the playing field" for unions by passing a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize.

Biden pointed out the difference between public sector employees, where 37 percent belong to unions, compared to the private sector, where just 7.5 percent of workers carry union cards. He said federal, state and municipal employees face fewer barriers to organization, while managers in the private sector use "every trick in the book" to undermine unions.

Biden said he and President Obama would not consider their economic recovery efforts a success unless growth creates "good, sustainable, livable jobs in the process." A key element, he said, is rebuilding the American labor movement, which has steadily declined since the 1950s.

Moderate and conservative Senate Democrats are negotiating amendments to the bill to avoid a predicted filibuster by Republicans.

But the Democrats by no means are united on the issue. George McGovern, the most liberal Democrat nominated for president, opposes the card check bill. According to The Politico:

The liberal icon’s public break with the left has produced from his old allies anger, confusion and a failed campaign to persuade him to change his mind on the legislation, which would give workers the option of joining a union by signing cards rather than by voting in a secret ballot.

Instead, McGovern has stuck to his guns in an unlikely campaign that began in the pages of The Wall Street Journal
, where he wrote that, for Democrats, abandoning the secret ballot would be “a betrayal of what we have always championed.”

Flirting with sacrilege, he compared his opposition to the bill to “my early and lonely opposition to the Vietnam War.”

McGovern’s stance may say more about the iconic, idiosyncratic former senator and Democratic presidential nominee than about the cause, but his words were repeated in television ads across the Midwest by
business-backed groups, and labor leaders from Sioux Falls to Washington took note.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, described the limitations of the system of NLRB elections quoted in Wikipedia:

"The current process for forming unions is badly broken and so skewed in favor of those who oppose unions, that workers must literally risk their jobs in order to form a union. Although it is illegal, one-quarter of employers facing an organizing drive have been found to fire at least one worker who supports a union. In fact, employees who are active union supporters have a one-in-five chance of being fired for legal union activities. Sadly, many employers resort to spying, threats, intimidation, harassment and other illegal activity in their campaigns to oppose unions. The penalty for illegal activity, including firing workers for engaging in protected activity, is so weak that it does little to deter law breakers.

Even when employers don't break the law, the process itself stacks the deck against union supporters. The employer has all the power; they control the information workers can receive, can force workers to attend anti-union meetings during work hours, can require workers to meet with supervisors who deliver anti-union messages, and can even imply that the business will close if the union wins. Union supporters' access to employees, on the other hand, is heavily restricted.

The Employee Free Choice Act [with its provisions for majority sign-up] would add some fairness to the system…"

The AFL-CIO states the following in arguing that the company-controlled secret ballots actually make the process less democratic:

"People call the current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election system a secret ballot election — but in fact it's not like any democratic election held anywhere else in our society. It's really a management-controlled election process because corporations have all the power. They control the information workers can receive and routinely poison the process by intimidating, harassing, coercing and even firing people who try to organize unions. No employee has free choice after being browbeaten by a supervisor to oppose the union or being told they may lose their job and livelihood if workers vote for the union."

Those who oppose majority sign up argue it strips workers of their right to a secret ballot and that it increases intimidation and pressure by union organizers, making it an inaccurate mechanism for determining employee support for unionization. Many business organizations, including The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes the implementation of card check. From its website:

"Under the existing law today, workers have a chance to vote for or against unionization in a private-ballot election that is federally supervised. Under Card Check, if more than 50% of workers at a facility sign a card, the government would have to certify the union, and a private ballot election would be prohibited--even if workers want one. By forcing workers to sign a card in public - instead of vote in private - card check opens the door to intimidation and coercion."

According to a 2004 Zogby survey conducted for the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 78% of union members support keeping the current secret ballot system.

So there's the arguments.

I can't help but observe that both sides claim the secret ballots are subject to intimidation. Makes you wonder.

All I know is that the working stiffs deserve a larger piece of the pie. Without them there would be no dough (nor pun intended).

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