27 March 2009

Look For the Union Libel

Is the decline in union membership among American private sector workers since the mid-20th century the intended result of a reactionary conspiracy or the product of more impersonal historic trends? Those who believe the former think that corporate-influenced governments have imposed unfair obstacles on union organization. They propose the legalization of the "card check" process as a remedy. Congress will consider an "Employee Free Choice Act" that allows for the unionization of a workplace when 50% of the workforce sign cards signifying their desire to unionize. Union supporters consider this a better alternative to current law, which makes unionization dependent on the outcome of a secret-ballot vote.

Predictably, many Republicans oppose the "card check" plan. Jonah Goldberg is a typical spokesman for this view. He considers the scheme undemocratic because it can do away with the secret-ballot elections. According to Goldberg, union organizers intend to use card check disingenuously, encouraging workers to sign as part of an effort to force a secret-ballot vote when the law would make unionization a fait accompli if a majority signs the cards.Goldberg's own argument is slightly disingenuous, since I doubt whether many workers will sign the cards only to force an election if they know that enough signatures mean they get a union automatically. Nevertheless, Goldberg insists that unions will use card check to "shanghai" workers into their organizations.

Are unions afraid of the secret ballot, as Goldberg claims? The answer seems to be yes. In my neighborhood, Goldberg's column appears in the Saratogian. Directly below today's column is a letter from a union supporter. Cliff Ammon of Saratoga Springs notes that would-be Representative Jim Tedisco opposes the "card check" bill because he favors the secret ballot. "I discovered why Mr. Tedisco raved so about 'secret ballot elections,' Ammon writes, "Under current [National Labor Relations Board] rules, management totally controls 'secret ballot elections.'"

The pro-union argument is that the run-up to a secret-ballot election only gives management time to carry out an intimidation campaign against union supporters. "Intimidation" is probably defined broadly here, since it usually consists less of physical bulling of organizer than of propaganda warning or layoffs or outsourcing or closing if the union wins. Whatever the facts behind the complaint, it's pretty ironic to hear the secret ballot denounced as a tool of intimidation by employers. Back in the 19th century, the secret ballot was demanded by working-class voters as a safeguard against such intimidation. Before the secret ballot was a commonplace, it was feared, often with reason, that employers would have observers at the polling place to watch how employees voted, and that workers could lose jobs if they voted the "wrong" way. The secret ballot, it was thought, would keep employers' eyes off the voting booth, freeing workers to vote their consciences fearlessly. But this little narrative was all about political elections. Workplace elections are a different story. Workers normally have no reason to fear that employers would take it out on everybody if the boss's candidate for Congress lost. But the bosses themselves have given workers reason to fear that they'd take it out on everybody if a union won an election.

If you think about it, however, there's nothing workers can do to deter bosses from "intimidating" them so long as current social relations remain in force. There's nothing stopping bosses, once they know that a card check process is under way, from making it known that everyone will suffer if too many people sign their cards. And to be fair about it, employers do share in the general freedom of speech. They do have a right to make a case against unionization, and I doubt a law can be written against the kind of warnings that union people interpret as intimidation. I can understand if Republicans see the card check plan as a scheme to deny employers their right to argue against unionization, though it's naive to think, as such talk would imply, that bosses would be helpless against a card check campaign.

Goldberg seems to think that blaming union decline on intimidation or obstructive laws is a conspiracist libel.

Organized labor is not dead in America, nor should it be. But it's simply not as important as it once was, because the government has an alphabet soup of agencies dedicated to protecting the rights of workers. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, OSHA and the Family and Medical Leave Act make the need for unions far less acute. This is good news for workers, especially liberals, but it's bad news for unions because they need grievances to grow (and the Democrats need unions).

Ammon tells a different story:

The collective bargaining laws and NLRB created in the 1930s have been emasculated since the Reagan administration. Over the past 30 years, union membership has declined through union busting, off-shoring, downsizing and part-timers. Although worker productivity has dramatically increased, they've seen their wages stay flat, lost health care benefits, and seen pensions disappear

The truth most likely lies somewhere between Ammon's conspiracy theory (which has a good deal of fact behind it) and Goldberg's account of almost accidental obsolescence (which seems to ignore some worker needs (wages, perhaps?) that unions might meet best). Unfortunately in our ideological age, people will choose the history that most closely conforms to their subjective worldviews, and those prejudices will decide where they stand on the card check question.

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