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February 23, 2007

A System of Checks and Balances (Working People Only)

Steven Greenhouse has a very peculiarly written story (why isn't the bill named or described till halfway through?) on the coming clash over the Employee Free Choice Act. For now, implementation of the act looks basically impossible, as Democrats can't break a Senate filibuster or overturn the promised presidential veto. Remarkable how our legislature found it so easy to heighten the obstacles for declaring bankruptcy but seems totally stymied when aiding workers who want to join a union without being fired, penalized, or browbeaten in captive meetings.

Towards the end of the article we get back into the debate over whether card check -- wherein workers simply sign cards to join the union -- is a legitimate process, or if, by denying the employer a distinct NLRB vote it can intimidate and sabotage, it exposes workers to union intimidation. Happily, there's actually data out there capable of settling the point. Given that the country has had elections of both types, the Eagleton Research Center and Rutgers University surveyed workers to see how they compared.

22% of workers surveyed said management "coerced them a great deal" during union elections. 6% said unions did the same. 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 -- and even 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. But, rather hilariously, anti-union Labor Secretary Elaine Chao concludes that, "a worker’s right to a secret ballot election is an intrinsic right in our democracy that should not be legislated away at the behest of special interest groups.” A worker's right to organize, conversely, can be swiftly sacrificed atop the altar of business interests.

Also at Tapped

February 23, 2007 in Labor | Permalink


"Remarkable how our legislature found it so easy to heighten the obstacles for declaring bankruptcy but seems totally stymied when aiding workers..."

Of course, it took more than a decade to pass the execrable Bankruptcy Bill precisely because it's so easy to stymie legislation.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 23, 2007 9:58:59 AM

If doctors get together to set an artificially high (as opposed to market) price for their labor, it's 'price fixing'. How exactly is this different?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 23, 2007 11:10:06 AM

It's important to note that "coercion" has very different implications if it's coming from an employer vs a union or co-workers. Your employer determines your work schedule, evaluates you, decides on your promotions, can discipline or fire you, etc (yes, it's technically illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for supporting a union, but everyone knows that in practice employers have impunity). During an organizing drive, the most a union can do is make you feel uncomfortable about being anti-union, which may be perfectly justifiable in my book.

Posted by: Cloudy | Feb 23, 2007 12:14:17 PM

"Coercion" also has a very precise legal definition which the laymen being surveyed likely did not know and did not have explained to them. Employees will ascribe coercion (or harassment or discrimination) to just about any employer action they do not like because the word sounds right not because they're trying to assert a legal argument.
As for the survey itself, is the methodology, etc. obtainable anywhere? Don't see it on the Americans Rights At Work website and don't have automatic faith in a 450 person survey about labor unions taken by an organization chaired by David Bonior and with John Sweeney on the board.

Posted by: scouser | Feb 23, 2007 12:28:34 PM

I still have the same question as last time: why shouldn't there be a secret ballot for union certification?

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 23, 2007 1:22:07 PM

"I still have the same question as last time: why shouldn't there be a secret ballot for union certification?"

If you've been around this blog as long as you have been, and you still don't even understand the rationale behind card check, then I'm afraid that attempting to re-explain it to you will have the same effect as explaining the principles of trigonometry to a chimp.

Mind you, I can accept that you don't agree with card check for whatever misguided ideological reasons you might have, but if you can't even grasp the reasons for card check after being repeatedly exposed to them, well then it's teaching trig to apes time.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 23, 2007 1:29:09 PM

Petey, you have such a vivid imagination. Nothing in my question remotely implies there isn't a rationale for a card check system, or no problems with the current system, or that I have any ideology at all beyond a belief in the virtues of secret ballots. The question remains why there shouldn't be a secret ballot. If you actually have an answer, I suggest you just give it instead off rambling about things you hear in your head.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 23, 2007 1:59:04 PM

"Nothing in my question remotely implies there isn't a rationale for a card check system"

Well, if you understand the rationale for card check, then I'm a bit befuddled as to why you're asking a question you already know the answer to.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 23, 2007 2:37:32 PM

I think there should be a secret ballot unless there is some reason there can't be. The current process is too drawn out and subject to intimidation, but that doesn't imply every system with a secret ballot must be that way. Why not have a card-check system that triggers a secret ballot, within a week, for example? Is there any particular objection to secret ballots themselves? Or do the problems arise from giving employers (and organizers, for that matter) way too much time to intimidate?

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 23, 2007 2:51:55 PM

Card check certification as the vehicle for authorizing the formation of a union lacks complete legitimacy because of the potential for (and often reality of) intimidation. I wouldn't have any problem with using the card check as the vehicle for authorizing a secret ballot certification election. It can be offsite and with whatever election monitors you want. At the end of the day, however, if a majority of workers thinks a union can improve their circumstances, the union should earn its certification (and its legitimacy) via a secret ballot election.

Posted by: BC | Feb 23, 2007 3:02:26 PM

Wait, BC, I'm confused -- did you not read the post? Like, the part about how workers assert they are intimidated (substantially) less in card check drives than in the run-up to elections?

Sanpete: The goal is to decide whether workers want to form a union. I think the evidence is fairly strong that fixed-date elections make it very easy for employers to intimidate workers. (I'm really confused about how organizers are supposed to intimidate workers, actually: they aren't in a position of power relative to workers.) Then it follows that some system with less intimidation would be better at actually achieving the goal. The alternative system is card check, and, lo and behold, workers report less intimidation in card check certification than in elections.
Now, I suppose that you could question the results of the survey, but I don't see why that should leave you in a position of preferring secret ballot -- it should leave you in the position of, "Whichever system is more accurate should be used, and someone should do another study to determine which system minimizes intimidation."

I suspect your proposed plan would probably be better (from an intimidation point of view) than a straight-up election, but it is also likely to be a logistical nightmare.

Posted by: JBL | Feb 23, 2007 3:23:31 PM

"Or do the problems arise from giving employers (and organizers, for that matter) way too much time to intimidate?"

Yuperoo, except for the fact that organizers don't have one twentieth the ability to intimidate that employers do. Organizers can't fire you.

If there were the possibility of prohibiting employers from firing organizers, (which I think there pretty obviously can't be), I'd have no problem with more drawn out processes.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 23, 2007 3:28:54 PM


Of course I read the post. Workers said they were intimidated less with card check; they didn't say they weren't intimidated at all. I agree with Sanpete that a secret ballot election is the better way to go (after getting enough cards signed to authorize one). Presumably, it could be held with a fairly short lead time, conducted off the employer's site and on a weekend or some other convenient time that doesn't conflict with the work schedule.

Posted by: BC | Feb 23, 2007 3:51:33 PM

JBL, I see no reason to think there can't be a system that is free enough from intimidation that includes secret ballots. The survey only addresses the flawed system we have now, not any better kind of secret ballot. A secret ballot is still the best means to obviate intimidation if properly carried out. That's why we have laws against poll taxes and intimidation instead of a card check system for electing public officials. There is no reason the system can't be streamlined and improved. Card check isn't the only alternative to the current mess. The logistics aren't that terrible.

Since even by the data you accept some workers report intimidation by unions or organizers, you shouldn't be so baffled at the idea. Unions have historically managed to find ways to intimidate too, even if they do it less than employers these days.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 23, 2007 4:05:46 PM

It's important to note that "coercion" has very different implications if it's coming from an employer vs a union or co-workers.

Oh, yeah....unions were never into coercion of non-members(eyes roll).

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 23, 2007 4:10:49 PM

BC and Sanpete: somehow I missed that you two were comparing "card checks as currently carried out" and "secret ballot elections, when carried out in some ideal circumstance." When you talk down card checks in favor of elections, my default is to assume you are supporting elections as they currently happen, not some alternate regeime of elections for which employers can't intimidate. If you want to suggest realistic third possibilities, that's fine by me, but if you call them "secret ballot elections," I think it's reasonable (in general) to assume that you mean "the current system of secret ballot elections," which works very poorly. Card checks, on the other hand, work substantially better. If you have even better systems in mind, by all means share them with us and your elected representatives, but as is you appear to be attacking the better because it's not the best.

Posted by: JBL | Feb 24, 2007 7:00:58 PM

JBL, both I and BC have suggested alternatives, including using the card check to trigger a secret ballot within a shorter period with better protections against intimidation. I think that would work better and attract wider political support. A card check system by itself is likely to remain more controversial and the object of continued efforts to get rid of it, which will remain easier to do on the basis of its apparent defects. Better to try to get a more broadly supportable plan on the table, one that ought to work just fine for unions.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 24, 2007 7:19:54 PM

Any comparison between NLRB secret ballot elections and the card check procedures being used today is disengenuous. Virtually every employer that agrees to card check under the current law has determined that it does not (or, because of political or economic pressure, CANNOT) care whether its employees are organized. Card check agreements commonly arise as a result of "corporate campaigns," in which a union will complain bitterly and publicly about some corporate practice -- like third world sweatshops or enviornmental issues. The real pupose of those campaigns is to secure corporate "neutrality" on unionization and card check recognition. When the company finally feels it cannot stand the negative publicity and signs the neutrality/card check agreement, the union's complaints about sweat shops/pollution/etc. suddenly end. (For a case study of this tactic, read about the Brylane campaign at this link http://efcaupdate.squarespace.com/document-repository/2002-03%20brylane%20corporate%20campaign.pdf ). And because the company has already given in on the issue of unionization, it is not at all suprising that there would be very few reports of coercion while the union collects its signatures.

Of course, if the Employee Free Choice act were to pass, a much different dynamic would come into play. Employers would be much more aggressive in those card-signing campaigns than in those that occur under today's laws.

Posted by: efcaupdates.com | Feb 25, 2007 3:39:53 PM

It seems to be some mind-set that if you vote to make a shop union, then all is fair. Well, all is not fair.

New guy comes looking for work...has good skills, but since the shop is now union, he is forced to join the union in order to get a job. How is that fair?

That's why I really like living in a right-to-work state. You want a job, you can get a job and if you wish to join the union, tha's great...or not...your choice.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 25, 2007 7:17:18 PM

"If doctors get together to set an artificially high (as opposed to market) price for their labor, it's 'price fixing'. How exactly is this different?"

Posted by: Fred Jones | Feb 23, 2007 8:10:06 AM

This is an old canard based on breezy comparison seeking and lack of discernment. Here is the big difference: The doctors are supplying a service directly to us, the patients/consumers. However, workers are literally the heart of the productive machinery of the company, which sells the results of their effort (yes, with help from management and the original investment) on to a third party (the "customer" proper), which then pays "the company" for the service. The question then is, how much of what the company takes in should go to those workers instead of the owners? So, the genuine analogy with doctors would be, how much of what the patient pays goes to them instead of someone else (like owners of the clinic.) If the workers owned the company, and tried to set their own pay in effect through a trust arrangement with other companies to set prices charged to real end customers, then they would be price fixing indeed.


Posted by: Neil Bates | Feb 25, 2007 8:13:15 PM

Fred Jones: You have a point on the free choice thing, and joining unions, but: companies and their apologists always like to say, "If you don't like what the company has to offer, you can work somewhere else." Well, why should that apply to conditions the management offers of its own will, and not those conditions it had to concede to a union? Why support "choice" in what the conditions for employees are going to be at work when it's not what the management wants, and be for putting up or the highway when the conditions are set forth as the management wants them to be?


Posted by: Neil Bates | Feb 25, 2007 10:07:42 PM

When the bankruptcy bill passed, the Republicans had a 55-45 edge and the presidency. I'm sure if the president had been a democrat and the Republicans only had a 51-49 majority , the bankruptcy bill wouldn't have passed. Elections matter.

Posted by: Jose Padilla | Feb 27, 2007 10:47:04 AM

Speaking of elections, check out what happens to the likelihood of getting fired as a union supporter after 2000.


Posted by: Liz Chimienti | Feb 27, 2007 9:44:38 PM

The right to work laws are written in such a way as to retard unions.

In a right to work state, you have a right to join a union shop and not join the union. In states without right to work laws, you are required to join the union after a period of time or lose your job.

However, in right to work states, even if you don't join the union, the law says you must be given the same pay and benefits as workers who did choose to unionize, did choose to fight for those benefits, and did choose to pay those union dues. That's not fair. That creates a freeloader problem on the union.

In all fairness, the laws should be written for balance. Yes, you should be able to join a union shop without being forced to join the union. Yes, you should not lose your job simply for not joining the union, but no, you should not automatically be entitled to same benefits union workers get because you are not union.

You should not be allowed to "freeload" off the labor union, and these "right to work" laws set the system up so that there is a freeloader problem.

Let's not be disingenous and argue that "right to work" laws are any better than what you find in blue states because they aren't in the interests of fairness.

Posted by: The Cog in the Machine | Feb 28, 2007 4:05:58 AM

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