February 9, 2009
The Obama administration will make every effort to pass a key piece of pro-union legislation. The bill has a misleading label: The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). In the interest of truth in advertising, the bill should be called, “The Employee Intimidation Act.” Why? Because one of the features of the EFCA, should it become law, would be to do away with traditional secret-ballot elections which are now used to determine whether or not employees in an enterprise want to be represented by a union.
Here is how union elections work currently. Suppose Company A has 75 assembly workers, and they are not members of a union. The union, let’s say the United Steel Workers, in an attempt to unionize these workers, sends paid organizers and local employees sympathetic to the union to talk to the workers, often after work or during breaks. The union’s goal is to have workers sign authorization cards. Once at least 30 percent of the workers in the plant sign those cards, the cards can be presented to the employer. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal governmental entity, then conducts a secret-ballot election, usually, within a month and a half after the presentation of the cards. If a majority of those in the plant vote “for” the union, the union becomes the representative of all the workers in that unit.
That, in brief, is the current system. There are two features which Obama and union advocates don’t like. First, the NLRB election is held only after the business gets an opportunity to present its side of the story to workers who have often only heard the union’s side. Secondly, an employee’s decision, for or against unionization, is kept confidential.
What Obama and the unions are asking for is to supplant the secret-ballot election with what is called a “card check.” In other words, when over 50 percent of employees have signed authorization cards, the union must be recognized by the employer. No secret-ballot election would be conducted.
What this invites is the pressuring of workers and a denial of their private right to free choice. Here is one possible scenari
Employees are walking out of the plant at the end of a work day. A group of employees who favor the union walk behind their buddy “Joe,” who is not convinced of the need for a union. They pressure Joe, saying that he certainly does not want to be considered an “employer lackey.” They continue until, in an effort to get them off of his back, Joe signs an authorization card. Or, imagine a “home visit” with a well-trained union organizer and a local employee. Once again, in front of other family members, the organizer tells Joe that he certainly does not want to stand in the way of higher wages and better working conditions. In the worst documented cases, the organizers may threaten workers or imply that if they do not cooperate, when the union gets in, the employee will lose his job.
Unions say that the current system gives employers a chance to convene closed-door meetings with workers in which the employer provides them with anti-union propaganda prepared by high-paid consultants. Of course this argument ignores similar activities conducted by well-financed and professionally skilled union organizers.
The existing system of secret balloting, if not perfect, does provide employees with a chance to express their decision about unionization, free from the pressure of either the employer or the union. Think of it this way. Suppose someone proposed to hold national presidential elections by means of such “card checks,” and dispensed with the secret ballot. Using such a system, that would mean that if John McCain presented more signed authorization cards than his opponent, Obama, he would have become president. No secret ballot; no sanctity of the voting booth. How would such a plan be greeted? Citizens would regard it as preposterous—an outrage! Then why is taking away the privacy of a worker’s choice about unionization any less outrageous?
Dr. John A. Sparks is Dean of the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts & Letters at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania, and teaches business law and Constitutional History. He is a Fellow for Educational Policy at the College’s Center for Vision & Values.