March 20, 2009 at 1:00 am

Decide union votes by card check or secret ballot?

Keep democracy, prevent fraud through worker elections

Kersey )

As Congress considers the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to make it easier for unions to win the right to represent workers, it has triggered a heated debate of unions against employers and employees.

Yes: Many workers have taken sides with employers against unions. A recent poll by McLaughlin and Associates, sponsored by the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, showed that 74 percent of union households opposed the card-check provisions that are the most controversial part of the proposal.

Currently, when a union and an employer cannot agree on whether a union has the support of a majority of workers, the government supervises a secret-ballot election to settle the matter. Under the card-check proposal, a union is put in place once it collects authorization cards signed by a majority of workers without a vote. Because the union controls the process -- there's no monitoring by the government or employer -- card check is open to fraud and abuse.

The act also creates a binding arbitration process that allows a government agent to decide wages and working conditions in newly organized companies. Unlike a negotiated agreement, workers will not be able to reject an arbitration award.

Why are unions pursuing such a controversial bill? Because unions are losing members, but apparently aren't willing to deal with the substantial reasons why workers often reject unions. A few examples:

  • Last July, a PowerPoint presentation on the "Reform Michigan Government Now" ballot proposal was found on a UAW Web site. The document revealed that the proposal was intended to ensure Democratic Party control of state government by stealth.

  • More recently, the extent to which union work rules and benefits have damaged the ability of domestic automakers to compete has been a bone of contention in the larger debate over auto company bailouts.

  • On more than one occasion, the Michigan Education Association has called or threatened an illegal strike to protect MESSA, a health insurance administrator with close and long-running ties to MEA leadership.

  • A Mackinac Center study of union financial disclosure found that less than half of the typical union's spending went toward worker representation.

  • The Teamsters remain under the watchful eye of an Independent Review Board, set up to monitor organized crime.

    Union officials argue that employers are resorting to underhanded tactics to pressure workers, but there are plenty of reasons why workers might doubt the value of union representation: political partisanship, economic ineptitude that can cost workers their jobs, self-dealing, waste and corruption.

    The most troubling aspect of the unions vs. workers fight over the Employee Free Choice Act is the extent to which unions have abandoned the principles of democracy.

    That undemocratic posture was on display when Teamsters President James P. Hoffa derided opponents who argue that taking away the secret ballot removes a linchpin of democracy. Hoffa has asserted that "the difference between despotism and democracy is not the secret ballot, but whether workers have the right to bargain collectively."

    In other words, Hoffa apparently believes that taking away secret-ballot votes is normal. He implies that democracy consists of workers having unions. And he leaves the impression that the process of voting is unimportant.

    There are a lot of workers who disagree with him on that.

    Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland.