While American workers have been consistently disappointed by Democratic Presidents over the last thirty years, both of them, this article by my friend Bill Gould makes very sensible suggestions for a potential Obama presidency.
With union density in the private sector at an historic low, the time for “change” when it comes to labor is well nigh. Not much has been heard from Obama on labor issues and he prefers to “dial in” his lectures to labor groups rather than show up in person as he did recently to the teachers’ unions.
That kind of stand offish behavior should be sound an alarm bell for unions.
But what does Professor Bill Gould, former NLRB chairman, have to say?
In recent years, the AFL-CIO has backed a new reform that would allow union recognition based on something called “card check” instead of union elections. Thus, a union could, off the job, circulate a petition or cards to workers that state that the worker agrees to the designation of the union as its sole representative with respect to bargaining over wages, hours and working conditions. Once the union has signed up 50% of the workforce plus one then the employer would be obligated to recognize the union as the workers’ bargaining representative.
Employers attack the proposal as undemocratic because it allows the union to avoid a secret ballot election to select the union over no representation at all.
Unfortunately many union officials back the card check approach for narrow bureaucratic reasons – it makes their job easier and it tends to weaken the need for encouraging active support among the rank and file workforce for the union.
That employers are defending the election approach over the card check approach is somewhat ironic. Federal labor law includes provisions for union elections not because Congress was concerned that employers would not have a fair shot at convincing workers to vote down the union but because it was concerned that more than one union would compete for worker support.
Recall that the National Labor Relations Act was written in 1935 and the AFL and CIO would compete intensely for workers’ backing across the country. The idea that workers could be convinced to reject a union altogether was not even on the table.
Over time, though, instead of having two or more unions compete in a secret ballot election (with “no union” as the third choice), which actually increases the chances of union affiliation, in the typical election it is a choice of one union or no union
Gould points out that employers have taken advantage of this by using delay to stretch out the time between the designation of a particular union to appear on the ballot and the point at which the election actually takes place.
As Gould writes:
These delays make it too easy for employers to intimidate and coerce workers, including by dismissing them for organizing. And this in turn diminishes employee interest in unions and thus undercuts the right to collective bargaining they are supposed to enjoy.
An approach, then, that would preserve the secret ballot approach yet move towards an early election date – taking away the weapon of delay – makes perfect sense.
Some elections face longer delays than the parliamentary elections in Iraq!
After all, if workers sign a petition for an election, why should they wait to be able to exercise their franchise?