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The Conservative Curmudgeon
March 3, 2009

Democracy and Labor Unions:
A Challenge to President Obama’s Commitment to Change

by Allan C. Brownfeld

During his presidential campaign, President Obama committed himself to “changing” Washington. Yet, along the way, he made a variety of commitments to special interest groups supporting him that may make such change impossible. One commitment was to embrace organized labor’s first priority, the “Employee Free Choice Act” (EFCA).

The very title of this proposal is a contradiction in terms.

At the present time, employees have two principal methods to form a union and gain the right to collectively bargain with employers. Company workers who get 30 percent to 50 percent of their colleagues to sign petition cards requesting representation can send the cards to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and have it oversee a secret-ballot election.

If more than 50 percent of an employer’s workers sign up for representation, the union is deemed legitimate through “card-check” procedures without the NLRB getting involved — but only if the employer does not request a secret-ballot election.

Today’s procedures — which organized labor seeks to eliminate — protect the rights of workers and bestow genuine free choice. Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, a union watchdog organization, notes that a federal agency conducts a secret-ballot election, usually within 60 days. “In that period, employees have the opportunity to hear from both sides regarding the pros and cons of unionization. As in a presidential campaign, the campaign window allows people to make the best decision by giving access to all the information about the candidates. But your ‘signature equals your vote’ process means a small workplace unit can be unionized overnight. Employers could be blindsided with little chance for informing their employees about the downsides of a union-run workplace.”

Employees should be in a position to properly evaluate the pros and cons of union membership. The percentage of unionized workers in the American economy has been in decline for good reason. The Office of Labor-Management Standards, for example, reports an average of two criminal convictions for union corruption or embezzlement of dues every week since 200l. Beyond this, according to government data, none of the largest unions has fully funded pension plans. Large union plans are six times more likely to be in “critical status” than non-union plans, and this was before the current stock market meltdown.

Opposition to a secret ballot for union membership flies in the face of the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans. A Zogby poll indicates a majority of Americans believes “employers should be able to provide employees with information about unions and the potential effect of unionizing their jobs.” And 87 percent of Americans agrees that workers deserve a private ballot in a workplace election.

One grass-roots organization, SOS Ballot, or Save Our Secret Ballot, is taking its case directly to the people. The organization is launching efforts in l0 states, with more to follow, to pass state constitutional amendments that will protect the right to vote by secret ballot.

Brett Joshpe, coauthor of the book Why You're Wrong About The Right: Behind The Myths: The Surprising Truth About Conservatives (Simon and Schuster), writes: “Even though state constitutional amendments would face constitutional challenge in the event of a conflict with federal legislation, grass-roots groups such as SOS Ballot are raising the political stakes for Big Labor advocates. In many ways, this effort represents a return to the tried-and-true political tactics perfected by conservatives in the past. Rather than trying to talk over Democrats who are compromised by special interests or spread the message through big business, opponents of the EFCA are bringing their case directly to the people on the grass-roots level.”

Tim Mooney, who is spearheading efforts to collect the necessary signatures in states where SOS Ballot operates, understands that members of Congress are more vulnerable when challenged and forced to take positions on the local level. “The
secret-ballot issue is definitional not just on where members of Congress stand but who members of Congress are,” Mooney said. “We want every candidate for governor and every candidate for the state legislature to have to take a firm stand. Do you want to stand with voters and their right to a secret ballot or with unions and their power grab to take secret ballots away from voters?”

Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in early February that Democrats in the near future plan to introduce EFCA, also known as card-check legislation. This legislation is the big payback to unions that helped to finance the Obama campaign, as well as many Democratic congressional campaigns.

This legislation, however, flies in the face of basic values held dear by both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives — the right to a secret ballot.

Even many liberals are dubious about this effort. George McGovern, the former presidential candidate, has staunchly opposed the imposition of collective bargaining relationships except through secret-ballot election. Senator McGovern called EFCA’s card-check provision “a disturbing and undemocratic overreach, not in the interests of either management or labor” and “counter to ideals that were once at the core of the labor movement.” He noted that “instead of providing a voice for the unheard, EFCA risks silencing those who would speak.”

Whether President Obama will prove to implement the “change” he discusses remains to be seen. Commentator John Heilemann notes that Obama appears to be “guided not by any hoary orthodoxies or deep partisan convictions but by a strict adherence to the doctrine of pragmatism. He brings to the task not just a new team and a new agenda but the makings of a new kind of political machine. The questions now are whether he can turn his rhetoric about transcending polarities into an effective governing strategy....”

According to The Economist, President Obama’s position concerning EFCA will be a “litmus test” for his new administration. There is some indication that he may be backing away from doing the bidding of organized labor. Late in January, he said: “If we're losing half a million jobs a month, then there are no jobs to unionize, so my focus first is on those key economic priority items.”

In the end, the decision to support election by secret ballot should not be a difficult choice for anyone committed to democratic values. How President Obama decides will tell us a great deal about what we may expect in the future.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation