My father spent most of his working life as a labor-union organizer, serving for more than a decade as the head of the Rockford, Ill. Labor Council. Not to be outdone, my mother got herself elected head of the Women’s Auxiliary of the United Auto Workers back in the ’40s. They came up through the union ranks during some very tough years and paid a price for their devotion to organized labor.
I’m not at all certain, however, that they’d recognize what’s become of the union movement today. They were strong believers in freedom of association and free elections. My dad wanted his fellow workers to join up not because they had to but because they recognized the benefits of union membership. That was back in the days when the union meant something and when men and women were fighting for their rights in an often hostile working environment.
Later, however, much of organized labor got fat and union leaders began to lose touch with the men and women they were supposedly elected to represent. Today, they are more likely to be found on the golf course or at pricey restaurants and nightclubs than at the negotiating table or on the picket line. As a result, workers who were once proud of their union affiliation have begun to turn away in droves. Less than 7.4 percent of the private-sector workforce in this country is unionized today, and the percentage is steadily decreasing. More and more workers, when given the chance, are either leaving their unions or refusing to unionize in the first place.
One would expect, given the situation, that union leaders would get together and ask themselves what they might do to make union membership more attractive. But that’s not what’s happening.
Since they’ve been losing a fair number of elections among workers they are seeking to unionize, they’ve decided that such elections ought simply to be abolished.
Elections are too cumbersome and time-consuming anyway, and union organizers aren’t all that comfortable with letting workers actually decide what they want in the privacy of a voting booth. They would rather look workers in the eye and get them to sign on the dotted line or perhaps dare them not to do so given the pressure and harassment that might follow a refusal to do the right thing.
They can already get employers to contractually agree to forgo an election as long as the union can produce cards signed by a majority of their workers stating that they do indeed want to be represented by a union; they’ve discovered that they are far more likely to win this way than by actually letting workers vote. Companies that are reluctant to sign away their employees’ right to a secret ballot are pressured by left-wing groups to give in and — today’s corporate officers being what they are — many of them roll over. After all, they can save themselves some trouble and it’s not their right to vote they’re giving up.
Once union organizers work things out with the employer, they send squads to the workers’ homes, corner them and use the sorts of tactics one might associate with an earlier generation of aluminum-siding salesmen to get them to sign. One former organizer told a congressional committee last fall that if he could get into a worker’s home, he simply wouldn’t leave without the signature he was seeking.
The workers themselves, along with most other Americans, aren’t all that happy about this. Various polls in recent years have shown that upwards of 90 percent of those polled think there is something wrong with doing away with the secret ballot so important to any democratic process.
Since not all employers have been willing to so cavalierly sign away their employees’ right to make up their own minds, labor leaders have done what they do best: They’ve gone to their friends in Congress and asked them to simply require employers to accept this “card check” alternative to the cumbersome process of allowing workers to make up their own minds free of harassment. Of course, their friends in Congress have complied.
This week the House will vote on H.R. 800 to make America’s workers second-class citizens. Many of the Democratic co-sponsors of this bill just a few years ago wrote in outrage to the Mexican government for not allowing workers there a secret ballot, which they argued is “absolutely necessary in order to ensure workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose.” The double standard may simply be a reflection of the fact that it’s American rather than Mexican unions that contribute so many millions of dollars to the campaigns of so many members of Congress.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).