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EDITORIAL: Keeping the ballot secret does protect workers: The Employee Free Choice Act could hurt more workers than it helps. Congress should kill...
[March 07, 2009]

EDITORIAL: Keeping the ballot secret does protect workers: The Employee Free Choice Act could hurt more workers than it helps. Congress should kill...


(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Mar. 7--Let's get one thing straight: Unions have been good for Wisconsin workers. There are plenty of statistics that back up this claim, but we'll focus on one in particular: Union members last year had median weekly earnings of $886, compared with $691 for nonunion workers, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.



So more unionized workers would be even better, right? Sure, but not at the expense of worker rights and not too much at the expense of the companies that provide the paychecks.

We believe that the woefully misnamed Employee Free Choice Act could well hurt the very workers in Wisconsin that it professes to help.


The bill, which passed the House in 2007 but died in the Senate, would establish a card-check system. While advocates claim this isn't the case, this new system would effectively end the secret ballot and radically alter union organizing.

It would work this way: Organizers would circulate cards indicating a wish to unionize. Once they had obtained the signatures of a majority of a proposed bargaining unit, they could organize it. Current law says that once 30% of a bargaining unit signs cards, a federally supervised election can be held -- with a secret ballot.

Congress, which is expected to take up the measure sometime this spring, should not throw out decades of adherence to the secret ballot. While card check may well lead to more unions, it also may well lead to more intimidation and coercion on the part of union organizers. Workers' intentions would no longer be private, which would open them to all manner of mischief from the overzealous, including the risk of forgery or fraud. The new system would limit management's ability to make its case, and because a campaign could be conducted secretly, it also might limit the ability of members of a bargaining unit to have a say in the process.

The bill is onerous in other ways. It imposes federally supervised arbitration on the process. After only 90 days, either side could ask for mediation -- and federal arbitration after just 30 days more. The arbitrator could impose a first contract that would last two years. While arbitration has a place, it's odd that after just three months of talks, negotiators could be allowed to throw up their hands and declare an impasse. Contracts, particularly first contracts, can be complicated and dicey to reach. This element of the bill overreaches.

The bill also would strengthen penalties for companies that break the law -- which makes sense if management chicanery is what has been holding back unions. But we urge Congress to be reasonable. All unfair labor practices -- by employers and unions -- should be subject to severe penalties.

Yes, management has some inherent advantages. Its language can be threatening -- warning of closure, a plant move or job losses if contracts are signed. Employees can be compelled to attend sessions in which companies make their cases, while union meetings are voluntary. Coercion can occur and be difficult to prove, because companies either have on staff or can bring in expert help to combat union organizing. Peer pressure from union members can be coercive, too, but doesn't rank with the threat of job losses -- whether the threat is credible or not.

But the solution isn't taking away workers' rights to choose by secret ballot. That is attacking the solution, not the problem. Unions actually are winning more elections lately. In 2008, unions won 67.4% of federally supervised elections, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of National Affairs Inc., a specialized publishing firm. That compares with a 60.9% win rate in 2007.

Overall, the BLS reports, union membership rose more last year than at any time in the past quarter-century. And contrary to some union claims, initial elections are held relatively quickly after a petition is filed. In an October report, the National Labor Relations Board said that 95% of all initial elections were conducted within 56 days.

Public-sector union membership remains high, but not so for the private sector, where only 7.6% of the work force is unionized. That's far below the high-water mark of 36% in the 1950s. But is this because companies are unfairly hampering organization? Or is it because the megatrends that are affecting the entire U.S. economy also are affecting unions? The expansion of free trade across borders and the trend toward globalized companies -- even small manufacturers often have overseas operations -- make it possible for companies to move jobs easily to lower-cost regions.

We don't like this trend. We understand that it is hollowing out some of our industries. But it's reality. And stacking the deck for organized labor likely would have the unintended consequence of pushing even more companies offshore, particularly in this troubled economic time.

Unions are losing ground for a variety of reasons. Some younger workers likely don't see the payoff from union dues when unions often can't keep their promises. Consider the plight of the United Auto Workers at General Motors. Others may not like the idea of burdensome work rules that can be seen as stifling individual effort. And over the years, federal law has grown more expansive in its protections of worker rights.

Unions remain an important part of the work force landscape; their pressure on management has secured important gains for workers. But union organizers have many tools at their disposal already, and recent statistics, particularly among public-sector unions, indicate they are using them to good advantage. The answer, then, is not a leg up for big labor -- which spent millions of dollars to help elect President Barack Obama.

The answer is strengthening penalties for misbehavior while preserving the central tenet of the secret ballot, which protects employees from both the boss and the union boss. Workers have the right to organize a union; they also have the right to be free from a union. Card check unfairly tips the scales at an inopportune moment.

What is your opinion of the Employee Free Choice Act? To be considered for publication as a letter to the editor, e-mail your opinion to the Journal Sentinel editorial department.

To see more of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.jsonline.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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