Unbalanced Checks

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Congress is debating a measure to change the way workers can form a union. Instead of holding a secret-ballot election, a union could be formed if a majority of employees sign a card indicating they want a union. The House passed the bill Thursday. However, the Senate will probably filibuster it, and if that somehow fails to happen, President Bush will certainly veto it. But it shows, despite conservative bluster about Big Union goons, just how modest the contemporary labor agenda is.

The conservative objections to a "card-check" plan certainly have some merit. In an ideal world, workers would decide whether to form a union by holding a free secret-ballot election. The workers would be able to listen to arguments from both sides, consider their choice and vote entirely on the merits of the arguments put forward.

The problem is that, in the real world, union elections bear little resemblance to this happy picture. Companies that face organizing drives have an enormous amount of control over the elections. They can hold mandatory meetings and barrage employees with anti-union propaganda. (Employees, obviously, can't call a halt to work for a mandatory pro-union propaganda session.) They can predict that a union will result in the shop closing and everybody losing their jobs.

And that's just the legal part.

On top of that, they can do all sorts of illegal things: fire workers involved in organizing, actually threaten to close the shop if a union forms and so on. Enforcement of these violations tends to be spotty and lax. Generally, it takes years for illegal union-busting firms to face any penalties and, even then, whatever fine they pay is often well worth the price of maintaining their bargaining power over the employees.

In theory, it might be possible to create enough regulations with enough enforcement to ensure fair secret-ballot union elections. In reality, it's never going to happen. Hence, the card-check proposal, which would allow workers to organize on their own terms.

The fear raised by business groups is that letting pro-union workers approach their fellow employees with a card would amount to intimidation. The National Right to Work Committee, a rabidly anti-union business lobby, collected stories of workers being pushed around by pro-union goons. The most chilling tale came from one South Carolina autoworker opposed to the United Auto Workers, who said: "Faced with a never-ending onslaught, we employees feel that the UAW is holding our heads under water until we drown."

My God, they're using water-boarding! But wait--they weren't actually holding anybody's head under water. Apparently it was just a metaphor.

The employee continued his harrowing tale: "Some employees have had five or more harassing visits from these union organizers." Wow, multiple visits! When this technique is used in regular elections, it's called "canvassing," and those involved brag about the effectiveness of their door-to-door operation.

Every argument I've seen against card-check unfailingly mentions the long decline in union membership. Representative Tom Price (R-Ga.), who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, noted in an anti-card-check screed that union membership is "down to 12 percent nationwide." Yes, it's true, union membership in the U.S. has hemorrhaged. What I don't see is why that is a point against card-check. To me, it suggests just the opposite: Unions are so weak that we have little to fear from a small uptick in membership. Suppose union membership was exploding and there was some danger the American economy was going the direction of France, where it's impossible to fire anybody. That might be a good reason to oppose the spread of unionism.

But the real problem in the American economy is not that workers have too much bargaining power. It's that they have too little. Corporate profits have exploded in recent years, while wages for average workers have barely budged. It's obviously great that business is doing so well. What we need are a few measures to help divvy up the pie just a bit more evenly. Anything that helps to slow down the massive erosion of unions is one of those sensible, small steps.

This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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