Columns » Ernest Dumas

Workers’ ‘rights’



If you can make yourself look at it this way, the country has become a far better place the past year or so because lots of people, from profit-motivated businessmen and lobbyists to hard-bitten newspaper owners and editors, have developed a sudden consuming concern that the horny-handed American worker might lose some of his or her rights.

You can hear their lamentations on C-Span forums or read them in news articles, advertisements, op-eds, letters to the editor and editorials in newspapers from coast to coast, nowhere more fervently than in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose columnists and editorial writers discourse weekly on the perfidy of the Employee Free Choice Act.

That bill, which the U. S. House of Representatives passed last year and President-elect Obama says he will sign if the full Congress passes it next year, would give labor unions a little more leverage in their one-sided tug of war with management to bargain for wages and benefits for employees. It would require companies to recognize a union as the bargaining agent if most of the employees signed cards saying they wanted the union to represent them. Now, no matter how many employees submit union cards a company can force a government-supervised election on the union before bargaining. In the intense campaigns that always follow, the advantage shifts to the company, which usually persuades its employees to reject the union.

If employees lose their absolute right to a secret ballot in the workplace by a card-check system, in the estimation of these alarmed humanitarians, it would be un-American, a betrayal of democracy and a stab in the back of workers.

Wal-Mart executives warned their district managers this fall that the peril facing workers was so great that the supervisors might work a little harder to see that Obama and Democrats did not get elected.

Cynics will doubt the sincerity of the alarms about workers losing their democratic rights. My own trusting nature is sorely tested. The alarmists are not so worried about workers' rights as they are unions recovering any of their sharply diminished influence. They really think it is un-American for employees to organize.

One way to tell, at least in the case of editorial writers and columnists and letter writers, is to watch the language. A union organizer is a “labor boss”; “bosses” is never used to describe company owners or supervisors.

Thus the check-card system is terrible because union bosses will intimidate employees into filling out and signing a union check card when they really don't want to. Given a secret ballot, they can express their true feelings.

What possible leverage can an organizer for the service employees union have over a Wal-Mart employee? Anyone who has ever been in a union election knows where the coercion comes from, and it is not the union. No one who has been in a union election, particularly where the union lost, ever wants to go through another.

A Cornell University academic who studied hundreds of organizing campaigns found that 90 percent of businesses facing organization forced employees to attend meetings to hear antiunion propaganda, 80 percent made supervisors undergo antiunion training, 78 percent required supervisors to denounce the union to their underlings, 75 percent hired outside consultants to run the campaigns, half of them threatened to close if the workers voted for the union, and 25 percent fired workers illegally before the election for supporting the union.

At the grand old Arkansas Gazette, an obituary writer who signed a union card was fired before the election on the premise that he had much earlier published a flimsy neighborhood journal called the Union Station Times. Conflict of interest, the editor told him. He was only part of the attrition before the election. The union lost on a tie, 30-30.

The campaign against the act, illustrated last week by the hazing of Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a reliable friend of Wal-Mart and management generally, at a businessmen's meeting, maintains that the free-choice bill would turn the nation's history of workplace democracy on its head and give unions the upper hand in their drive to unionize the American workforce. Unions represent a long declining part of the American workforce, now about 8 percent.

Mandatory card check, if it is enacted, isn't likely to change it much. Oregon passed a state version for public employees. Nine months after it took effect, only 11 workers in the state had become union members through the process.

While business groups say that the bill would bring about a sea change in labor-management relations, the sea change has already happened. The Bush Labor Department in eight years handed down decision after decision crimping collective bargaining rights. The Employee Free Choice Act is the result.

As for the claim that the issue is the constitutional right of workers to a secret ballot, Lee Scott, the retiring Wal-Mart CEO, had the answer at a stock analysts meeting in October. It's about power, he said.

“We like driving the car and we're not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us.”


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