Columns » Ernest Dumas

The union 'threat'

by and


If you follow the opinion pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette you know that the secret ballot and democracy itself are under assault by the new Democratic majority in Congress.

Five times in six weeks, the editors or a house columnist unlimbered a diatribe against the Democrats for pushing a hapless little bill called the Employee Free Choice Act. Hapless because it has absolutely no chance of becoming law.

“Can this be America?” the editor wrote in mock horror after the U.S. House passed the bill 241 to 185. “There go secret ballots,” said the headline.

A newspaper that raised no alarm over the massive erosion of privacy rights under the Patriot Act, the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness project or any of the other incursions upon personal rights the past six years wants all of us to climb the ramparts to protect a worker from voluntarily signing a card saying she wants to have the union bargain for her.

See, if a worker signs a union card and the National Labor Relations Board says a majority of her fellow workers did, too, then that employee loses her privacy, which is un-American. Her employer will know she’s a union member, so will the union agent, and one of them can harass her.

In the Brave New World of Bushthink, this passes for reasoned reflection. Employees must be protected from their own stupidity. When they do something to try to improve their lot in the workplace they are actually abandoning their privacy and subjecting themselves to punishment.

This is not merely the Democrat-Gazette editorial writers talking. The chambers of commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and National Federation of Independent Business run seminars and invite the press, where they peddle the theory that whatever union-sponsored labor reform is under way actually erodes the rights of workers. You don’t say that it’s costly to business. And most American newspapers that editorialize follow the Democrat-Gazette’s line. They are protecting the poor workers, not standing up for management.

The poor workers would be happy to be left unprotected.

Here is a good measurement of a newspaper’s evenhandedness. Does it always refer to union organizers as “labor bosses” or “union bosses”? You won’t find a Democrat-Gazette editorial about union activity — ever — that doesn’t use one of those loaded terms. Little Rock school editorials always refer to the “bosses” of the teacher’s union. Pick one. The superintendent, on the other hand, is never a boss.

Does the paper ever talk about “corporate bosses” when it writes about labor-management issues? A search of the Democrat-Gazette opinion-pages database does not turn up a single one in 10 years.

The bill that shocks the conscience of management and the newspaper would make it easier for employees to unionize. They could win recognition for a union as their bargaining agent if most of the workers signed and turned in union membership cards without having an NLRB election, where management usually wears down the workers and wins.

It is labor’s first effort at labor-law reform since the disaster of 1978, when the defeat of its reform bill and the Democrats’ disarray on the issue, despite their majority status, led to their debacle in the 1980 elections. Labor never wanted to subject its friends in Congress to that again. But this year they were emboldened by the Democrats’ takeover of the Senate and House of Representatives to get another roll call. The bill can’t get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to block a filibuster, and there aren’t enough votes to override a certain presidential veto anyway.

The absurd theory peddled at the anti-union seminars and bought by the editorial writers is that without a supervised election poor workers are bullied by organizers into signing union cards and seeking recognition for the union. Anyone who actually believes such nonsense has never been in a union election. The pressure doesn’t come from the union.

The union cannot hold a meeting at the plant and command the workers’ attendance, cannot bar employees from talking about the union on employment time, cannot fire employees or tell them that they are apt to lose their jobs or benefits if the company boss wins the election. For a couple of generations management has rarely lost elections.

Even at a workplace so benign as the late great Arkansas Gazette, which had cheerfully hosted the first union in Arkansas 142 years ago, among its typesetters, a modern union election in 1974 left editorial workers embittered and determined never to go through it again. Despite a huge union signup of employees, the determined management won the election among the employees who lasted until election day, 30 to 30.

Since the 1950s, the union share of the workforce has fallen from 35 percent to 7.4 percent, owing partly to the hostile regulations for union elections and the weak penalties for company violations of the rules. A 2000 study showed that a fourth of all employers in organizing campaigns illegally fired employees.

In the same period, the income disparity in the United States has widened to its greatest point in more than a century and the great working middle class is shrinking. Conservative economics are concerned about what it means to the future stability of the country.

Unions have a history of doing one thing: raising wages. Unionized workers have a far higher average wage than nonunion workers. You would think that even George W. Bush would see the connection and support this one small step for the embattled worker.

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