Linda Chavez

Private sector unions are perilously close to going the way of the dinosaur, but they still have enough teeth to convince Democrats to try to cram through legislation that would imperil workers' free choice.

Union membership among non-government employees now stands at 7.4 percent, its lowest rate in decades. So, the AFL-CIO, its affiliates, and several independent unions are trying to make it easier to force employers to recognize unions as exclusive bargaining agents through legislation.

The misnamed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is now at the top of the new Democrat-controlled Congress' agenda. The legislation would eliminate secret ballot elections for union representation, depriving workers of the right to reject the union without incurring the wrath of union organizers or their fellow workers.

If the EFCA passes this time around -- the bill has been introduced in each of the last two Congresses but was held in check by Republicans -- it will be a huge boost for unions.

Under current law, an employer can already agree to collective bargaining with the union on behalf of his workers when a majority of them have signed union authorization cards. But if the employer wants to make sure that his workers weren't pressured into signing the cards, or if he wants to try to convince them that they will have more flexibility without a union or even that the union may end up destroying jobs, he can insist on an open campaign period followed by a secret ballot election.

The new bill, on the other hand, would force the employer to recognize the union solely on the basis of cards collected by union organizers, collected before the employer even has a chance to make his case to the employees. What's more, if a worker feels intimidated when approached by the union organizer, he may not feel free to just say no.

Under the current system, an ambivalent worker can sign the card knowing he'll be able to make a truly free choice later through the secrecy of the ballot box. It's the democratic way.

Existing law also protects workers from vindictive employers. Since the ultimate decision of whether workers will be represented by union contract will be up to all employees in a secret ballot election, employers will not be able to punish those employees they think went against them because the secret ballot protects the identities of those who voted for the union.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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