True workplace democracy, in which workers vote about whether to join a union, is at risk. Karen Mayhew, who works for Kaiser Permanente in Portland, found herself stuck in a union against her will. The Service Employees International Union didn’t win an election. All it had to do was browbeat enough employees to publicly sign a union card.
Federal law requires a government-monitored election before any company can be forced to recognize a union, but Kaiser decided to accept the signed cards. Mayhew complained to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and won a settlement requiring a secret-ballot election before Kaiser would recognize any union. Unfortunately, Democrats are pushing the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act, which would make union elections a thing of the past. Kaiser’s approach would become federal law, with mandatory recognition if a union collected cards from a majority of workers. No employee in America would be guaranteed a vote on joining a union.
Organized labor is frustrated. The proportion of workers who belong to unions peaked in the 1950s. Today just 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized. Only among government employees are unions growing.
Organized labor has been losing its hold over workers because the economy is evolving. Workers increasingly recognize that cooperation rather than confrontation between employers and employees is necessary to increase productivity and flexibility. High-cost, antiquated work rules damaged America’s manufacturing industries. A new approach is necessary to succeed in today’s global economy.
Unfortunately, “change” is not a concept that labor organizers believe in. The results have been clear as employees increasingly reject calls for unionization. If unions collect signed cards from 30 percent of workers, a secret-ballot election must be held. But Big Labor typically loses if it only collects the minimum number of cards, so union operatives rarely call for an election unless they get far more than a majority of cards. Even then, they lose nearly half of the votes.
The problem is the message. Unions try to redistribute a shrinking economic pie rather than expand the pie. That wasn’t a good approach in the old industrial economy. It’s an awful strategy in today’s global economy.
But union officials have a different diagnosis. The problem is elections.
In the view of labor organizers, secret ballots are unfair. Companies can make the case against the union. Employees are protected from intimidation. Workers have free choice. Too many times they vote the “wrong” way.