Employee free choice: fight over phrasing

I convey congratulations, albeit grudgingly, to organized labor and its supporters on Capitol Hill for the way they have framed the debate over labor’s No. 1 priority in the 110th Congress — the infamous “card-check” bill.

Using the time-tested strategy of naming legislation with a clever euphemism, union advocates are pushing legislation that would restructure radically the process of organizing a workplace under the pleasant-sounding, even stirring title, “The Employee Free Choice Act.” Warming to the public-relations challenge, they talk about the bill “leveling the playing field,” “empowering workers” and “ensuring workers’ rights.”

To be sure, this campaign is being influenced by more than pretty words and clever phraseology. In March, major unions descended on Washington for their annual legislative conferences, with their members hearing from presidential candidates and elected officials and making scores of Hill visits. During the Easter break, organized labor rallied workers for the legislation and flooded newspapers with letters to the editor.

Still, language is important and represents a key tactic in the lobbying world of Washington. To define the terms of the debate is half the battle.

But the cunningly named Employee Free Choice Act belies the true substance and intent of this subversive legislation. It does not describe the bill accurately. Not by a long shot.

Indeed, the bill’s title appears designed to divert attention from what the legislation actually would accomplish. Groups such as the AFL-CIO and UNITE! gain a lobbying and public-relations advantage when they divert attention from the substance of H.R. 800 and S. 1041. (H.R. 800 passed the House on March 1 by a vote of 241–185. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced S. 1041 on March 29.)

So the first task for those of us who oppose this legislation is to return the discussion to what the legislation would do, to focus on the specifics. The Employee Free Choice Act would be more aptly named the “Employee No Choice Act” or, if you prefer, the “Orwellian Employee Free Choice Act.”

We also refer to the legislation as the “card-check” bill, because it would allow unions to organize a business strictly through employee signatures on a union representation card.

Current law allows either an employer or a union to request an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board once the union has collected signature cards from 30 percent (plus one) of a business’s employees. Workers can then vote via private ballot, without the union organizers or their company’s bosses looking over their shoulders.

The “card-check” legislation fundamentally restructures that process by allowing union representation through signature cards alone, once 50 percent (plus one) of a workplace’s employees sign cards. Employers would lose the right to request an election by the traditional secret ballot.

The stakes in this dispute are huge. Big Labor sees the legislation as a way to help stem the calamitous decline in nationwide union membership, which has dropped below 8 percent in the private sector. Their solution is not to recognize and adapt to the changing needs of modern workers, but rather to rig the process, exposing individual employees to intense one-on-one persuasion, coercion and intimidation, depiriving them of the traditional safety of the secret ballot to vote their conscience.

All the well-chosen euphemisms in the world cannot put lipstick on this legislative pig. The fundamental issue remains “free choice,” whether employees have the right — the free choice — to choose in a fair and private matter.

The reason the unions speak in broad, pleasant-sounding phrases is because they know Americans regard secret ballots as a basic, democratic right. According to a January poll of union and non-union households conducted by the business-backed Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, 87 percent support the continued use of secret ballots. Of union households, 79 percent support secret ballots. No wonder the advocates of the misleadingly named Employee Free Choice Act do not want to talk about the bill’s substance. To speak openly and honestly about its provisions would mean its quick death.

Organized labor is trying to pull a fast one, and euphemizing is one part of its strategy, but no one is really being fooled. Constituents and voters eventually hold their members of Congress accountable for the substance of the legislation they vote on — not the title of bills, no matter how pleasant they sound.

A former three-term governor of Michigan, Engler is president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers, the largest industrial trade association in the United States.