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.
Whether or not to be represented by a union is a momentous decision that affects not only current workers but future workers of the company. Once the union has been selected to be the sole bargaining agent, it remains so indefinitely, even after all the workers involved in the selection are long gone. The law does provide a mechanism to decertify a union, but the process is long and difficult.
And the decision to choose a union binds even those employees who don't want to join in non-right-to-work states, since even non-members must pay a portion of dues -- or agency fees as they're often called -- if they're represented by a union contract.
Fewer and fewer workers are choosing unions to represent them in collective bargaining primarily because they see little value in it. Workers represented by union contracts must pay dues amounting to hundreds of dollars a year, which in some cases do not even result in pay and benefit increases to offset the costs of union membership.
What's worse, union dues end up financing political campaigns -- without the express consent of the members -- as well as lobbying, organizing new members, and paying for huge union bureaucracies with fat paychecks for the unions' own leaders and staff. Of course, these activities have little to do with why workers join unions in the first place, but they do add to the power and leverage unions have over workers' lives, even those who don't happen to be members.
A wise man once said "no lasting gain has ever come from compulsion." He was Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American labor movement. Too bad today's union leaders won't heed his words.