October 20, 2006
How Bad Is Card-Check?
A couple days ago, Megan McArdle and I got into a heated argument over the morality of card-check legislation. Card-check is a top union priority that would effectively abolish the current system of employer-controlled union elections and create a situation where, if 50+1% of workers signed a card asking for a union, they've got a union. Megan found this -- and I quote -- "morally abhorrent," mainly because the ballot is not secret, and so unions can intimidate. My concerns fell much more with the current, constant, and far more effective intimidation tactics of employers. Research shows that, when threatened with a union, 30% of employers fire pro-union workers, 49% threaten to close down, 51% use bribery or favoritism to tilt the election, and 82% hire unionbusting consultants. Now that's what I call morally abhorrent.
Today I found some interesting data with strong bearing on the argument. A poll commissioned by American Rights at Work (a pro-union org), Rutgers University, and Jesuit Wheeling University surveyed 430 randomly-selected workers from worksites where employees had sought unions either through the NLRB election process or card-check. The survey included workers who voted both for and against the union, and included campaigns in which the unions both won and lost. The Eagleton Research Center and Rutgers conducted the calls over a couple of weeks in 2005.
The results were telling: 22% of workers surveyed said management "coerced them a great deal.' 6% said the same for unions. During the NLRB election, 46% of workers complained of management pressure. During card check elections, 14% complained of union pressure. Workers in NLRB elections were twice as likely as workers in card check elections to report that management coerced them to oppose (it's worth noting that in card-check elections, 23% of workers complained of management coercion -- more than complained of union coercion). Workers in NLRB elections were more than 53% as likely to report that management threatened to eliminate their jobs.
Even more interesting, fewer workers in card check campaigns said coworkers pressured them to join the union (17% to 22%). Workers in card check elections were more than twice as likely to report the employer took a neutral stance and let the workers decide. So, in fairness to Megan, neither option is perfect. But these results show that one is decidedly less perfect than the other.
How intimidated can you be over a secret ballot? Your boss can threaten to fire people who vote to unionize, but how will she know who voted for what?
Posted by: digamma | Oct 20, 2006 11:53:34 AM
Of course, there may be a bias here.
That is, how many of the card check elections took place because the employer permitted it? If card check legislation will force the hand of anti-union employers, the percentage of employees coerced by management under card check elections ought to be higher under mandatory card check elections.
Mind you, the bias only strengthens the argument in favor of card check elections.
Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 20, 2006 11:57:42 AM
If you read a little into that, it seems that the biggest form of "coercion" was bribery or handing out favours; the second biggest form was saying (and having studied labour relations from management's perspective, I have a pretty good idea of what their lawyers would let them say) "If the union pushes up wages beyond what is competitive, they can't stop us from closing the plant or going out of business." Since this is perfectly true, I don't see how you could legally enjoin companies from saying it: the union cannot guarantee anyone a job or a plant to work for. This is not quite the same as "Vote union, or I'll beat you up/fuck up your work schedules/screw with your pension plan" or "Don't vote union, or I'll fire you", which is what the smaller levels of reported coercion involved.
More to the point, if bosses are unlawfully firing pro-union workers, it seems to me that the proper response is to prevent them from unlawfully firing workers, not overturn the liberal principle of secret ballots. If you don't have teh political juice to do the former, you won't get very far on the latter, either.
Posted by: Jane galt | Oct 20, 2006 11:59:59 AM
Why can't you have the same system but with a secreet ballot?
Posted by: Sam L. | Oct 20, 2006 12:18:32 PM
Is there some rationale for not having a secret ballot?
Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 20, 2006 12:23:34 PM
Yes, it would make more sense to prevent bosses from unlawfully firing workers. But unless you're going to overturn the entire system of employment at will (a step which Megan obviously would not accept) it is nearly impossible to prove that a firing was union-related. Virtually all workplaces have rules that are routinely broken by everyone, but these rules can be used selectively as a justification for firing someone the bosses want to get rid of. Or the bosses can just claim underproduction or underperformance, and that's a very difficult claim to dispute.
Ironically, card check actually would require less government intervention in the workings of businesses than would a genuinely intimidation-free secret ballot. It's a lot less work and interference to count cards and figure out 50%+1 than to police every single management and union activity in the time period leading up to the election.
Posted by: Josh G. | Oct 20, 2006 1:16:17 PM
"More to the point, if bosses are unlawfully firing pro-union workers, it seems to me that the proper response is to prevent them from unlawfully firing workers"
You're priceless, Megan - kinda like Ann Coulter for folks with a college degree.
Posted by: Petey | Oct 20, 2006 1:19:08 PM
Posted by: Sam L. | Oct 20, 2006 9:18:32 AM Why can't you have the same system but with a secreet ballot?
How do you propose to do a card check system without the name of the person on the card that is checked? AFAIU, the system is, an employee working at the plant signs a card requesting certification, or applying to join the union if it is certified, and if more than 50% of the workers at the plant apply, the union presents the cards and the union is certified.
The closest thing you could do to have a secret ballot with a cardcheck system would be to have a card check system with a certain quota for an election, and when the cards are introduced call a snap election without the preceding "campaign" period that is used to identify and fire union activists and spread the anti-union message.
In general, the reason that employers are able to bully employees so successfully preceding an NRLB election on whether to certify a union is because the employees are not unionized.
Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 20, 2006 1:44:15 PM
Can't the boss just fire everybody who signs the cards? How is that an improvement?
Posted by: digamma | Oct 20, 2006 1:48:54 PM
Crossposting from TAPPED:
Digamma, I think they can find out who's talking to their coworkers about forming a union and fire those people. As Jay says, this can happen before the secret ballot.
[as for your second question, I'd guess that firing organizers is still a problem, but that if they fired everyone who signed a card it would be easier to show a correlation; as well, if they literally fired everyone who did say they'd be wiping out their workforce. But this is a priori speculation, might want to ask a labor lawyer here.]
Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 20, 2006 2:06:42 PM
On further review, given that the linked document says that card checks are usually accompanied by neutrality agreements, I don't know how they'd work without neutrality agreements.
Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 20, 2006 2:11:02 PM
"If the union pushes up wages beyond what is competitive, they can't stop us from closing the plant or going out of business." Since this is perfectly true," ...Jane Galt
If [management] holds compensation below what is reasonable, they can't stop [workers] from closing the plant or putting the corporation our of business.
This must be true to enable a free and fair market for labor. That is all.
Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 20, 2006 2:17:11 PM
I am not complaining mind you, but I have a small business that does government consulting. A card check system was used, and my staff voted for the union. I was unaware that they were being solicited, I only knew that it was possible. I never really explained the potential downside of unionizing to the staff.
On the one hand, it eased my relationships. I only had to negotiate with one person, the union rep. On the other hand, since our benefits including the medical and the 401k were superior to the union's, there were no major changes. Since the government controlled the contract and the salaries of the individuals working on it, there were no real wage negotiations to speak of. Each worker pays 2 hours per month of wages for the right to be a member. Progressive discipline has made it more structured and fairer.
Posted by: Ernie Fazio | Oct 20, 2006 2:35:58 PM
Bruce, wouldn't the concerns about intimidation and illegal firings apply just as well to those who push for signing the cards as to those who push for a yes vote in a secret ballot? I'm probably overlooking some advantage of the card system. What would that be?
Your suggestion has no doubt occurred to people, so there must some objection to the secret ballot that hasn't come out here.
Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 20, 2006 2:55:58 PM
I suspect Jane Galt feels unions are on balance bad and should be discouraged while Erza Klein thinks unions are on balance good and should be encouraged. If this is true there is little hope for agreement on things like card check.
Posted by: James B. Shearer | Oct 20, 2006 3:11:00 PM
This is a strange argument. In the absence of card check recognition, you still have to do a card drive in order to secure the right to have a recognition election. So there will still be union organizers talking to folks and asking them to sign cards. Which is to say that there isn't going to be any kind of unionization drive where employees aren't asked -- repeatedly probably -- to take a public stand for or against the union and to memorialize that stand by signing a card.
Posted by: dr | Oct 20, 2006 3:31:00 PM
Mr. Klein, I know it won't happen, but perhaps MM's latest screed in this comments thread may convince you to stop listening to her. I have tried to be nice and wait for the evidence, and now having had my fill of her screeds, I think I am comfortable judging her analysis on balance to be worthless.
Tilt at windmills, not religions. You can't win tilting at religion, and a Rand disciple is as much a convert as was a 1950s Communist.
Posted by: wcw | Oct 20, 2006 6:39:19 PM
WCW, if you understand why Jane is wrong to insist on secret ballots, maybe you could explain it to us here. Of course, you might have to read what she says first, which would violate your resolve.
Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 20, 2006 8:39:49 PM
In Jane's defense, she has pretty consistently denied that she's a Rand disciple, saying that her pseudonym is ironic. That said, I endorse Petey's characterization.
Posted by: Matt Weiner | Oct 20, 2006 8:43:55 PM
The obvious con of pure card check elections is that you need to have some way of verifying to ensure that the cards aren't misrepresenting the workers (coercion, etc.). Your numbers seem to poke a hole in the traditional argument that coercion is worse in pure card check elections than in traditional NLRB elections.
It seems a tad unfair to the employers because it is usually done secretly so the employers aren't able to respond with their communication/propoganda - the employees are only subject to the union's communications/propaganda.
Of course, the answer to this is that employers can communicate with their employees whenever they want which is a huge advantage over unions.
I think a more convincing argument in favor of pure card checks for people who are anti-union like MM is that pure card check elections are FAR LESS bureaucratic than traditional NLRB elections. Card check elections are extremely quick. NLRB elections can take as long as 3-5 years to fully complete, certify, and resolve. This saves a huge amount of energy on both management and workers - energy that can be better used for firm productivity.
Posted by: michael | Oct 20, 2006 10:46:51 PM
There is a third option that shouldn't be forgotten: Strike for Recognition. If a union can't get private sector employees to strike for recognition, the likelihood of an adequate first contract is small.
Posted by: withrow | Oct 20, 2006 11:18:43 PM
Posted by: withrow | Oct 20, 2006 8:18:43 PM There is a third option that shouldn't be forgotten: Strike for Recognition. If a union can't get private sector employees to strike for recognition, the likelihood of an adequate first contract is small.
If the employees are joining a national union, it seems clear that they have a better bargaining position after the union is certified.
Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 21, 2006 4:06:51 PM
There is also the possibility of a union being formed WITHOUT a union election. Take the example of UE 150 in the North Carolina Sanitation worker strikes. Or the entire history of the IWW, which always refused legal contracts.Union, or more importantly, labor agitation has little to do with the electon method, but rather the strength and conciousness of the workers involved and their ability to win demands.
Posted by: Sean S. | Oct 22, 2006 2:24:29 PM
It seems to me that the secret ballot structure is a good idea, but that there ought to be no campaign period. Intimidation is really a potential problem (and if your unions have close ties to organized crime, which has been the case for some unions at some times, that potential goes up); but campaign periods provide time for employers to pressure workers unduly. So it seems to me that the whole process ought to be quick; if the union can produce, say, 10% of workers' signatures (and if the company challenges it, the verification must be by a 3rd party, at company expense), the election is the next day.
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