Democrats Vs. The Secret Ballot

Rich Lowry

3/2/2007 1:36:16 PM - Rich Lowry

Behold, the self-styled friends of American labor. They are now trying to relieve the American worker of what they consider the unreasonable burden of the secret ballot, which is only one of the cardinal principles of free and fair elections.

The ballots in question are those in elections to determine whether or not a work force will unionize. Unions tend to win these elections when they occur (more than 60 percent of the time in 2005), but that's not good enough to stanch the bleeding in union membership. So the unions want to dispense with the elections in favor of a "card check" process. Or as a union official put it in an organizing dispute a few years ago, "There's no reason to subject the workers to an election."

House Democrats, who behave as if they hold their jobs only at the sufferance of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (and some of them probably do), have duly obliged by passing legislation to do away with these pesky secret elections, which have been enshrined in the workplace since the National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act) of 1935. Instead, workers would become unionized when a majority of them signed an authorization card presented to them by union organizers.

The supporters of this card-check approach argue that it is freer from the taint of intimidation than the secret ballot. Perhaps through the looking glass. But a public process in which workers will feel peer and other pressures to sign up is obviously less likely to reflect their true sentiments than a secret ballot. Nonetheless, the Democrats call their legislation the Employee Free Choice Act, which is hilariously perverse.

The House vote is a vindication for the strategy of Sweeney, who, against the advice of union leaders who want to spend more on organizing, has insisted on continuing to bankroll the Democrats. His insight is that trying to unionize workers basically is hopeless without more Democrats in office to tip the playing field in the unions' favor. Hence the raw power play in employer-union relations on the House floor (thankfully the Senate is unlikely to go along).

Sweeney is correct, because most workers rationally calculating their interests will avoid unions. Union membership has shrunk to a husk of itself. In 2006, it was just 12 percent of workers, down from 12.5 percent only a year before and down from 20.1 percent in 1983. Almost half of those union members are government employees, and almost half live in just six states.

Unionization has declined along with the manufacturing sector, and stepped-up competition has made it harder for companies to bear the increased labor costs and workplace rigidities that come with unionization. Union organizers might as well show up at places of employment and say, "Hi, we're from the union, and we want to help make your company less agile and profitable."

Union advocates are missing the dynamic nature of the 21st-century American economy and misdiagnosing its ills. A new report from the centrist Democratic outfit Third Way punctures the myths of the left's economic "neopopulism." The middle class is not failing. It has grown wealthier (the median income of households with married couples in their working prime is more than $72,000). Americans aren't drowning in debt. They are taking on mortgages that represent investments in housing, and their assets are rising faster than their debts (real net worth for middle-income families has increased 35 percent over the past two decades).

And the American economy isn't in a globalization-induced eclipse. While imports have increased as a percentage of gross domestic product during the past 20 years, the jobless rate has fallen. The economy isn't suffering from a savings crisis. This supposed crisis is belied by "the fact that America boasts the largest investment community in the world, and that Americans plow billions of dollars into mutual funds and other investments every year."

So, American workers seem to be doing OK, except for the terrible stresses of elections, of course.