Let’s Steward Unions Back In
The Employee Free Choice Act should be signed into law to protect U.S. workers from anti-union coercion by corporations. Pro or con?
Pro: Setting Global Standards of Fairness
The House of Representatives passed the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) this month. This measure would require employer recognition of a union when a majority of workers sign authorization cards indicating support for unionization.
Employers even now may voluntarily recognize a union based on a demonstrated majority or "card check." Cingular Wireless, now AT&T (T), has done this, perceiving the advantages of partnership with its workforce. Most employers, however, refuse to accept card check. Workers must petition for a government-supervised representation election in which employers have multiple opportunities to influence the outcome, often through delays and intimidation.
Unions have suffered a precipitous decline since the 1970s. More than 33% of American workers were organized in the 1950s. Now the proportion organized is around 12%. Employers have grown more aggressively anti-union. Many have terminated union activists. The remedies of the National Labor Relations Board for employer abuses have been slow and ineffective.
In the early days, the NLRB considered unionization a decision for workers alone and regarded employer intervention as inherently coercive. Unfortunately, the protections of the law have eroded since then. Despite considerable survey evidence suggesting a majority of American workers want independent representation, union membership continues to decline.
The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are mobilizing to defeat the EFCA. It should come as no surprise that these groups oppose a bill that would facilitate unionization. They have been hostile to unions since their founding. They claim to defend the workers’ right to a secret ballot election, by which they actually mean the employers’ right to obstruct.
These groups like to blame unionization for the the loss of jobs to overseas manufacturers. But they are ignoring a larger truth: that the protection of workers’ rights is integral to development and democracy whether in the U.S. or abroad.
Fortunately, there are many businesspeople who understand the economy is increasingly out of balance, and that unionism counts as an important remedy. The middle class is losing ground as top managers make astronomical salaries and workers’ wages remain flat. The economy suffers from a deficit of purchasing power. Society is less democratic. It is time for socially conscious business leaders to take a stand for a more balanced economy and defend workers’ freedom of association.
Con: Labor Bullying Redux
We’re worried that American competitiveness is about to be whacked by the Employee Free Choice Act, currently weaving an insidious path through Congress toward becoming law.
We know it must sound strange to oppose legislation that promises "free choice." But the bill won’t encourage liberty or self-determination in the workplace; more likely it will introduce intimidation and coercion by labor organizers who, after a long slide into near-oblivion, finally see a new route to millions of dues-paying members.
Their campaign could trigger a surge in unionization across U.S. industry—and a reversion to the bloated economy that brought America to its knees in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If you want to be reminded of what that looks like, drive through Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and take a look at all the shuttered factories. Steel—like coal, autos, and so many other industries in the global economy—paid the inevitable price of unionization run amok.
We don’t unilaterally oppose unions. Indeed, if a company is habitually unfair or unreasonable, it deserves what it gets from organized labor. But the problem with unions is that they make a sport out of killing productivity even when companies are providing good wages, benefits, and working conditions. It is not uncommon in a union shop to shut down production rather than allow a nonunion worker to flip a switch. In today’s global economy, companies today can’t afford such petty bureaucracy. The Employee Free Choice Act undermines labor and management’s ability to resolve such disputes.
How would the EFCA work? Currently, when labor organizers want to launch a unionization effort, they ask each worker to sign a card as a show of support. If 30% or more employees do so, a federally supervised election can be called and conducted with one of the most revered mechanisms in democracy, the secret ballot. Thus employees can vote their conscience without fear of retribution from either union leaders or management.
By contrast, under the Employee Free Choice Act, organizers could start a union if 50% of employees, plus one more worker, sign cards. That’s right—no more secret ballot. Instead, employees would likely get a phone call with a pointed solicitation, or a home visit from a small team of organizers who make it hard to say no.
Still, the advance of the Employee Free Choice Act continues unabated. If enough business leaders and legislators don’t stand up, it may well be: Hello again, unions. So long, American competitiveness.