Barack Obama provides a study in contrasts. He is personally measured, but his agenda is radical. Although his top personnel are largely centrist, his objectives are standard leftist issue. If his program succeeds, the U.S. will look a lot more like Europe, with far more of life controlled by the central government. Rather like American Uncle Sam meets French Sun King.
One of the most important goals of the Obama program is to strengthen labor unions. Explained the president: "I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it's part of the solution." Of course more powerful unions would make it easier for him to push through the rest of his policy agenda. That's why he is backing the "card check" bill, which makes it a battle to control the entire economy.
Obviously, people have a right to join unions. But there is no reason for government to promote unions, especially in today's world. For all the cant from union officials about how everyone in America is desperate to join a union, labor membership has been falling steadily for reasons unrelated to the latest National Labor Relations Board ruling.
Just 7.6 percent of private sector workers today belong to unions because most workers view unions as irrelevant in today's rapidly changing economy. Sclerosis and stasis, the normal prescriptions of union leaders, benefit labor bureaucrats rather than workers.
But these unions won't take no for an answer. Current law requires that an organizing election be held if 30 percent of workers sign a union card. But if that's all a union collects, it is likely to lose the vote. In fact, organizers figure they have to collect the signatures of three-quarters of the workers to have a 50-50 chance of winning. Unions typically lose 40 percent of organizing contests. As a result, the AFL-CIO melodramatically claims, "workers still lack the freedom to form unions." UAW President Ron Gettelfinger even compares the plight of union workers to that of blacks fighting Jim Crow.
To redress this phantom injustice, organized labor has concocted the so-called Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would force recognition of the union if 50 percent plus one person signed a card, a process known as card check. The legislation also would impose a contract through arbitration if the union and company could not agree.
The goals are to eliminate organizing elections and bias contract negotiations. Since it's hard for unions to argue against elections -- they demand them for decertifying unions and promote them for labor unions overseas -- organized labor claims that the current system is unfair. Employers supposedly can fire organizers and propagandize workers.
But NLRB figures indicate that in fewer than three percent of organizing campaigns are union organizers illegally fired. The obvious solution to any abuses is to adjust penalties rather than end elections. Employers also have legitimate arguments to make, arguments best offered in the course of a secret ballot election.
The secret ballot is key. It protects workers from retaliation -- that's why the U.S. elects public officials, rather than allowing citizens to sign election cards. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell which worker is more vulnerable to pressure and even violence: one who gets to cast a secret ballot or one who must sign or not sign a card in public view. Four decades ago a federal appeals court declared: "it is beyond dispute that secret election is a more accurate reflection of the employees' true desires than a check of authorization cards collected at the behest of a union organizer."
Former union organizer Jen Jason testified before the House Education and Labor Committee: "During the course of my employment with the union, I began to understand the reality behind the rhetoric. I took in the ways that organizers were manipulating workers just to get a majority on 'the cards' and the various strategies that they employed. I began to appreciate that promises made by organizers at the worker's house had little to do with how the union actually functions as a 'service' organization."
In fact, misrepresentation and intimidation are routine, as union organizers lie about what signing the care means (claiming, for example, that it certifies attending a meeting or requesting more information) and badger employees to sign (sending groups of pro-union workers to people's homes). The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation has collected the stories of many employees, such as that of Mike Ivey, a South Carolina materials handler, who complained that the UAW "created a hostile work environment" through relentless pressure to sign cards. These abuses would be multiplied if card check automatically yielded recognition, foreclosing the need for a vote.
This may be why even union members favor elections. Polls have found that eight to nine of every ten of them favor a vote. Card check is a tool for union executives and Democratic politicians, not workers.
The proposal for binding arbitration may be no less dangerous. Having foisted a union upon unwilling workers through card check, labor leaders want to foist a union contract upon unwilling companies. The card check bill sets virtually no standards to guide the process. Notes University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein in a detailed new study: "Nothing in the statute settles questions of how arbitration panels are to be set up, the scope of their powers, or the reviewability of their decrees on matters of fact and law."
Arbitration of grievances is a common procedure, but authorizing someone to determine the "interests" of two parties over the wide range of issues covered in a typical contract is very different. In the public sector this practice has increased costs, which "have long been seen as a significant feature of out-of-control local government budgets," notes attorney Thomas P. Gies. Moreover, the process would likely lead to an economy-wide standard irrespective of industry, product, service, or finances. Organized labor is hoping for a double "gimme" -- recognition without winning an election and contract without completing a negotiation.
No one can predict with certainty the economic consequences of card check. Unions assume they would have millions of new members and billions of new dollars.
The first result would be to further immobilize the economy. Although some individual employees -- and especially union leaders -- might benefit from today's coercive collective bargaining process, a new study by Stan Greer of the National Institute for Labor Relations Research found: "The record shows that the prevalence of union monopoly bargaining is correlated with lower real incomes, higher living costs, slower growth in jobs and job benefits, and higher unemployment." Similarly, economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway pointed out that "the overall evidence is overwhelming that labor unions in contemporary America have had harmful aggregate effects on the economy. Unions are associated with lower rates of growth in incomes and jobs." The Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs warns of an employment loss of 600,000 if card check passes.
Indeed, turning control of the economy over to organized labor would follow Europe, which values stasis over growth. The organizing principle of most European labor organizations is a sense of entitlement: someone somewhere should pay them for doing as little as possible. This system may be the principle reason that Europe went for years without creating a single net job. Flexible and vibrant are not terms anyone would apply to the European economy.
The second result would be to expand government authority over the economy and virtually every other aspect of our lives. Organized labor spent up to a half billion dollars in the 2008 election cycle. Government unions, most notably the Service Employees International Union, have become particularly dependent on government largesse. The SEIU invested nearly $2 million in Rod Blagojevich's two gubernatorial campaigns and was caught up in the federal investigation of the former Illinois governor's apparent desire to auction off Barack Obama's Senate seat. Union officials see politics as an easy means to get benefits that they cannot win in a marketplace.
But union activists want to do more than win more money for their members. Unfortunately, the labor leadership seems to see itself not as the representative of working men and women, but as a partner in the liberal coalition. Thus, unions have been leading efforts to block policy reforms that would most benefit their members: provide families with choice in education, expand consumer-directed health care, offer retirees control over their own futures, increase access to new energy sources, expand participation in the international marketplace, reduce income redistribution programs, limit baseless lawsuits filed by trial attorneys, and so on.
Above all, it is imperative to ensure that workers retain the right to vote before the government requires companies to recognize a union. That means defeating the Employee "No Choice" Act. It also means pressing for state constitutional amendments guaranteeing elections, as promoted by the group Save Our Secret Ballot, chaired by former Rep. Ernest Istook. And contracts must be arrived at through negotiation, not imposition.
It is bad enough that card check would in fact deny workers a free choice about whether to unionize. But if it passes, ECFA would end up denying the rest of us a free choice about many of the economic decisions that we still take for granted.