Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has decided to hold a vote this Wednesday on perhaps the most unpopular element of the Democratic agenda. The Employee Free Choice Act has already passed the House, but now it faces real hurdles in the Senate because, contrary to the name, it undermines workplace democracy.
Under the so-called card-check bill, a company would no longer have the right to demand a secret-ballot election to certify a union, thus stripping 140 million American workers of the right to decide in private whether to organize.
Republican senators, except possibly Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, are uniformly opposed to the idea. "We went to the secret ballot in the early 1800s in this country for a darn good reason: If somebody's looking over your shoulder, your ballot doesn't mean much," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says, noting fears of intimidation by unions should the bill pass.
But conservatives aren't the only ones concerned. A February survey of 1,000 likely voters by McLaughlin Associates found that 79% of respondents oppose the bill, with only 14% in favor. Even Democrats opposed the idea, 78% to 16%.
So why is Mr. Reid taking the risk of putting the bill on the floor, since even if it passed it would face a certain presidential veto? Simply put, the card check law is the No. 1 priority of union lobbyists in the new Democratic Congress. Union membership numbers are down. In the 1950s, 35% of private-sector workers belonged to unions; only about 7% do today.
Of course, union officials blame others for their decline. "In the past few decades, labor law has been so twisted by corporations and their union-busting hired guns that it is now virtually impossible to form a union against an employer's wishes," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says--even though unions currently win just over half of the elections called over union representation.
Card-check procedures for making a union the sole bargaining representative for employees are already part of labor law. If 30% of workers sign a card asking for a union, an employer is obligated to certify the union or call an election. What the card-check bill would do is force certification without a secret-ballot election as soon as a majority of workers at a plant signed pro-union cards.
Even if card check doesn't prevail at the national level this year, the unions are making progress in pushing the concept through friendly state legislatures. Last Wednesday, a card-check bill backed by the United Farm Workers passed a California Assembly committee. The state Senate has already approved the measure.
The UFW is trying to alter the very 1975 farm labor agreement that its founder, the late Cesar Chavez, fought so long and hard for. One of the 1975 law's key provisions was a guarantee of secret ballot elections for farm-worker unions who felt the laws in place at the time allowed intimidation by employers.
In neighboring Oregon, both legislative chambers have now passed a bill allowing public-sector unions to bypass union-recognition elections in favor of the card check model. The Salem Statesman Journal reports that legislators have largely ignored complaints from some adult foster-care providers that during a recent union drive "activists used deceptive means to persuade workers to sign union-authorization cards."
No wonder a group called Oregon Taxpayers United is close to collecting enough signatures to qualify a ballot measure that would prohibit government employee unions in the state from collecting money from members for political purposes. The group's head, Bill Sizemore, reports that the measure enjoys 67% support in polls. A similar law was just last week unanimously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned a Washington state Supreme Court decision that went in favor of the unions.
Unions have a right to participate vigorously in the democratic process, and they take full advantage of it. That's why it is so jarring to see them support a measure that tampers with the sacred right to use a secret ballot when deciding something as critical as who will speak for people in the workplace.
Indeed, many of the congressional supporters of a card-check law sang an entirely different tune a few years ago about the importance of a secret ballot. In 2001, Rep. George Miller of California, the chief House sponsor of the card check bill, joined Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and 14 other Democratic colleagues in writing Mexican labor authorities that "we feel that the secret ballot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure that workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose." Apparently, a secret ballot is imperative to protect Mexican workers, but on the U.S. side of the border it's an impediment to Mr. Miller's domestic political agenda.
Look for the card check issue to become a part of the 2008 presidential race, since it's almost guaranteed this will be one issue dividing the Democratic and Republican nominees.