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March 01, 2007

Workplaces Are Not A Democracy

Bob Reich makes a crucial point:

Employers say a simple up-or-down vote, such as featured in the House bill, would allow pro-union workers to intimidate their co-workers. They argue for the more elaborate secret ballot. They say a secret ballot is essential to democracy. But they've got it wrong. Workplaces aren't democracies. Employers have the power to hire and fire -- and that's exactly where the potential for intimidation lies. The only way around it is to go with a simple up-or-down vote.

Read that again. Workplaces aren't a democracy. The votes will never, ever be fair, or even secret. Employers will never voluntarily eschew interference. They will always hold the cards, and be able to threaten terminations and closings. The question is whether you think unions should have a chance. I do, some don't. And that's fine. But that, at root, is the disagreement here.

March 1, 2007 in Labor | Permalink

Comments

In theory, secret ballots are always a good idea. In practice, perhaps not so much.

Anyways, unions as an economic force are in their last throes. That's a structural analysis. A debate over secret ballots and whatnot is just playing at the margins.

Posted by: Korha | Mar 1, 2007 2:53:14 PM

What doesn't pass the laugh test is arguing that there should be no secret ballot because the workplace isn't a democracy, but we should have "a simple up-or-down vote" because ... um, well, why then, if it's not a democracy? Why have any vote? Silliness.

I don't think Reich's argument adds anything useful to the debate. The card check system as proposed is flawed more than it should be, and that may well keep it from passing. We need to look to better proposals whether it passes or not.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 1, 2007 3:10:02 PM

Are you really so naive as to believe that's what will keep it from passing, Sanpete? when the employers have said they'll fight the non-card check compromise measure equally as hard?

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 1, 2007 3:26:38 PM

The employers have said they'll fight a certain provision of a particular compromise. That doesn't entail that the compromise, or some other compromise, wouldn't attract more support. We're handing the opponents of this bill a perfectly legitimate reason to oppose it. That may or may not result in its not passing, but we can remove that barrier and still have as good a proposal, and that can only help to pass it. I'm not against the bill as it stands. I'm against some of the arguments for it, and I'm in favor of something better, whether this bill passes or not.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 1, 2007 3:43:38 PM

Unless I'm mistaken, firms can close down a plant if they wish to after a successful union drive. They just can't threaten to close down a plant in the event of a successful Union drive as a means or persuading employees not to form one.

That doesen't make much sense.

Posted by: DRR | Mar 1, 2007 3:44:34 PM

I don't understand the argument which says that workers are more likely to be intimidated by their employers under a secret ballot than under a public ballot.

It seems to me that's precisely backwards.

Posted by: aphrael | Mar 1, 2007 4:09:48 PM

Aphrael, as I understand it, the main problem with the current system isn't the secret ballot as such but the difficult and prolonged process leading up to it, which gives employers way too much time to intimidate workers before the vote. Having a secret ballot in a shorter period of time would greatly reduce the opportunity for intimidation.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 1, 2007 4:17:09 PM

Sanpete, Ontario apparently has the system you're suggesting: there is a five-day period before the election. You can go read what Brad Plumer has to say about it here:
http://plumer.blogspot.com/2007_03_01_archive.html#4598097129003362202

Posted by: JBL | Mar 1, 2007 4:52:58 PM

For those of you who don't follow links, here is Brad's summary:

"[F]or a number of years after 1995, the certification rate was still considerably higher in Ontario than it is in the United States, suggesting that faster elections do have some effect. On the other hand, the rate seems to be dropping in recent years, suggesting that employers are getting increasingly good at winning even "expedited" elections."

Posted by: JBL | Mar 1, 2007 4:54:08 PM

Sanpete: a short period for the election seems perfectly reasonable to me, although it also seems to me that it could cut both ways (eg, a longer time gives union organizers more time to persuade those who are on the fence or who are anti-union). I'm merely confused by those advocating a public ballot as being less likely to allow intimidation.

Posted by: aphrael | Mar 1, 2007 5:00:09 PM

Aphrael, that's because you haven't actually looked into this and you seem to think that we're all suggesting everyone get together and do a show of hands. That's not at all what this is. They simply sign a piece of paper and when a large enough percentage of workers have signed up, a union is created. There are no formal mass votes at all. You don't even have to actually participate.

The reason it's less susceptible to interference is that the employers won't know who wanted a union until AFTER the union is already created. Closing a plant down might work once or twice, but as an actual strategy to prevent unionization it would cause a large hit to that firms bottom line and would eventually lead to collapse. Short of that, a union can stop nearly any other retalitory behavior if they have even half-way capable negotiators.

Posted by: soullite | Mar 1, 2007 5:07:25 PM

To be blunt: The only way to prevent intimidation is for employers to not even know what's going on until it's a done deal. They can't interfere with what they don't know is happening.

Posted by: soullite | Mar 1, 2007 5:08:46 PM

JBL, thanks for the link. It's interesting that Ontario moved from card check to the quick secret ballot. Ontario is more labor-friendly in general than the US, so if they couldn't keep card check there it's unlikely we'd be able to keep it here, even if it passed. Unions are aiming high in the current legislation, probably higher than could be sustained, which could lead to a backlash.

The drop in unionization in Ontario after a few years of secret ballots may be due in part to the kinds of shops left to unionize, with the easier ones already done.

I'm merely confused by those advocating a public ballot as being less likely to allow intimidation.

Yeah, that makes no sense. Polling shows that workers feel more intimidation from secret ballot elections, as currently done, than from card check, as currently done. Some incorrectly infer from this that secret ballots are more intimidating, rather than that our current system for secret ballots is more intimidating.

One other reason there is less intimidation under current card check elections is that such elections only happen where employers have agreed to it instead of requiring a secret ballot. Obviously those employers won't intimidate as much, since they aren't opposed strongly enough to require the more difficult election process that would allow for more intimidation.

The reason it's less susceptible to interference is that the employers won't know who wanted a union until AFTER the union is already created.

Employers can know just as well beforehand who is pushing for unions with card check as with a secret ballot.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 1, 2007 5:46:33 PM

I'm merely confused by those advocating a public ballot as being less likely to allow intimidation.

Card check is not a public ballot. As soullite has already pointed out, card check isn't a show of hands, it's simply signing a card (or not) and sending it into the NLRB.

It helps to mitigate pressure from both sides, because no one really knows how other people are voting. An employee can tell his manager that he didn't sign a card and the union rep that he did. Since it's being sent into the NLRB, no one will know.

One other reason there is less intimidation under current card check elections is that such elections only happen where employers have agreed to it instead of requiring a secret ballot. Obviously those employers won't intimidate as much, since they aren't opposed strongly enough to require the more difficult election process that would allow for more intimidation.

That's not what the statistics actually say. What we're seeing is that pressure from unions is less during card check elections than pressure from employers during standard secret ballot elections. From Ezra's previous post on this:

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.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 1, 2007 7:10:59 PM

If secret ballots in all elections are essential for democracy then all votes by City Councils, state legislatures and Congress should conform to this standard.

Posted by: Demos | Mar 1, 2007 7:49:58 PM

Stephen, what you describe is a secret ballot card check. From what I read, the forms are typically distributed and signed in the presence of others, and soullite says they're made public after the union certification. I don't know how that works, but you're the first person I've seen claim that card check is a secret ballot.

The stats you quote support what I said. They show more employer intimidation under secret ballots than under card check. One big reason for that is that card check is only decisive if an employer voluntarily accepts it. The law is that the only way to force an employer to recognize a union is by NLRB secret ballot. An employer that voluntarily accepts card check is far less likely to be interested in intimidating workers than one that insists on the secret ballot, which allows more ample opportunity for it. That's undoubtedly a big reason the stats turn out the way they do.

Demos, all of the institutions you mention are made up of people elected by secret ballot. Since those people respresent us and must be accountable to us, their votes must be public. In union certification elections each voter only represents him or herself. There is no similar reason for their vote not to be secret.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 1, 2007 8:00:56 PM

Sanpete,

There's nothing in the NLRB election regulations that require a certain amount of time for an election. So mandating 5-day secret ballot elections or whatever isn't really going to address anything.

For that matter, card check elections might take a long time. Again, the amount of time that an election takes doesn't really matter. Nor does any other cosmetic change that we might consider making.

Granted that employers that allow card check elections are less likely to apply pressure - though still at a greater rate than unions - the point is to deal with those employers that do not allow card check currently and are hostile to unionization. Since there's many variations on secret ballot elections that are allowed under NLRB rules, tweaking the current system that gives employers an advantage isn't going to help employees.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 1, 2007 8:41:18 PM

I've heard two reports today (NPR and The News Hour) that this bill is doomed in the Senate, and would be vetoed anyway. We need a different bill.

Stephen, the system in Ontario requires the secret ballot to be held within five days of the election being called. (The ballot doesn't take five days; it's done on one day.) Is that what you're talking about? Current NLRB practice takes far longer after the election is called, resulting in more opportunity for intimidation. The whole point of the shorter period is to avoid that advantage to the employer. Maybe I'm overlooking part of your point.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 1, 2007 9:15:14 PM

I did think the 5-day thing you were talking about was 5 days of ballots. When looking at the NLRB rules, with an NLRB rep, union reps and employee reps there all day every day, there would be a bunch of ability to interfere.

My main point, though, is that tweaking the current system isn't going to change the basic requirements of such a system, which is why someone like me who wants to make union organizing as easy as possible is going to prefer the card check system.

As far as Ontario, while they may be more worker-friendly than most US states, we shouldn't then assume that their switch from card check to secret ballot was done at the behest of the workers.

When the US Chamber of Commerce brings up a possible compromise and then declares that they would fight that anyway, we don't need a different bill, we need a stronger majority.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 2, 2007 12:42:29 AM

My thinking about Ontario was that there isn't enough support even there to keep card check over a secret ballot, and I don't think there would be a stable majority for it here either. Nor should there be. It isn't an onerous condition to require a majority vote by secret ballot, as long as the ballot isn't put off too long. Card check is better than what we have now, but it isn't as good as it needs to be. If the cards were done in a way that guaranteed secrecy, such as you outlined earlier, that would be fine.

It's an arbitration provision that the spokesman for the US Chamber of Commerce announced opposition to, not a compromise on card check.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 2, 2007 1:42:17 AM

Read the book " The Blue Eagle At Work- Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the Workplace. " Senator Wagner intended to Democratize the workplace.. We must return to the original intent.

In Solidarity, Ron

Posted by: Ron | Mar 2, 2007 7:07:00 AM

The golden rule of economics (and that is what we are dealing with when discussing the workplace):

"He who has the gold, makes the rules."

When you are the one ponying up, you get a say. If all of the union organizers were shareholders, they, too, would have a say. Unions at this point in time are simply an attempt to bully others.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 2, 2007 9:21:22 AM

"He who has the gold, makes the rules."

And FJ clearly thinks this is an excellent principle. Irony is dead., indeed.

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 2, 2007 10:05:15 AM

And FJ clearly thinks this is an excellent principle. Irony is dead., indeed.

Do you also wish to make a value judgement about gravity? It's just a recurring natural law. Expect "B" to happen when cause "A" occurs. Economics and other behavioral sciences also have some rules, and I believe this is one of them.
Like squeezing a balloon on one end, owners will make it up on the other end somehow.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 2, 2007 11:34:04 AM

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Posted by: judy | Sep 27, 2007 11:47:02 PM

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