Columns » John Brummett

Card check and secret ballots

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I'm getting mail saying that, contrary to what I've written, “card check” would not do away with secret-ballot elections on certifying labor union affiliations. So here are the facts.

Secret-ballot elections are almost always conducted now because management, whenever confronted by a union movement, invariably wants elections and is permitted by law to choose them. This “card check” bill would let unions organize without elections, merely by signing cards. It would remove management's authority to invoke elections.

But the “card check” bill would not specifically amend a provision in existing law saying 30 percent of a workforce could insist on elections.

A recent article in Slate, the on-line magazine, shot pretty straight on this. It concluded that “card check” would not remove — “in theory” — the right to a secret-ballot election. It said, however, that the bill would remove that right “in practice.” It said labor had many legitimate complaints, but found itself in the untenable political position of being against democracy and privacy.

This is how the process works now: Unions may submit signed cards from 30 percent of employees to form a union. But they seldom if ever submit cards unless they've locked up solid super-majorities. Then the company responds by  demanding a secret ballot election, which becomes a war of attrition, and which the National Labor Relations Board runs after a period of 40 days or so.

Here's how it would work under labor's bill: Unions would go around to workers offering cards for signatures. If a majority of workers signed, the cards would be presented to the employer and — as clearly provided in this “card check” measure — certification of the union would be instantly and automatically required. That's until and unless, based on the old law, 30 percent of the workers came forward — either through the union or by their own volition — to call for an election.

Union officials probably would be loath to submit cards from 30 percent of workers calling for an election after they had submitted cards from more than 50 percent that effectively had already certified a new union. Anyway, the Slate article wonders why workers who had just signed cards to unionize themselves would then sign cards insisting on a secret-ballot election on what they'd just won.

Rather plainly, the new system would transfer power. It represents labor's attempt to unionize preemptively and preclude management's option to declare and wage the war of attrition. And it's a political payoff, of course.

The current system is more balanced and objective. What's wrong with insisting that there'll always be a contemplation period during which both sides can be presented, after which nobody knows how you vote? Pressure gets exerted during these campaigns, yes. It's not always pretty.

But at least the opportunity exists now for the pressure to come from both sides rather than unilaterally and stealthily.

If there is rampant abuse by employers of workers during the election period, as labor alleges, then we need a tougher regulatory and prosecutorial climate under this Democratic president rather than an end run on elections with secret ballots.

Signing binding cards while the other side is disengaged is no fair process. If we'd elected a president by a preemptive “card check,” her name would be Hillary Clinton.

Maybe you think I just made a great argument for it.

Alan Hughes, head of the the AFL-CIO in Arkansas, was quoted over the weekend as saying one couldn't be pro-union without being for card check.

But that's not so.

You can be pro-union without wanting unions to reap an inappropriate advantage, just as you can root for the Razorbacks without wanting the officials to give them the game with unfair calls.

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