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It's in the cards for labor

Saturday, June 28, 2008 - 8:00pm

BY Steven J. Law

Sunday, June 29, 2008

In recent weeks, the Service Employees International Union trumpeted it had earmarked $10 million solely to weed out Democrats who don't toe the union line in 2009. Why such urgency?

Earlier this year, the Labor Department reported that union membership actually grew in 2007. This seemingly good news for organized labor was tempered by two other bits of data: the slight uptick - just one-tenth of 1 percent - was so small as to border on statistically insignificant, and was the first increase in a quarter-century. In fact, union membership has shrunk from more than 35 percent of the work force in the 1950s to just 12.1 percent today. Among private-sector workers, union membership is just 7.5 percent.

To rebuild, union officials need to decide if they will try to convince workers that joining a union will improve their lives, or pour more money into politics and seek legislation that will essentially force people to join a union.

Unfortunately, many have chosen politics and coercion. Unions plan to spend upward of $400 million on political activism in 2008 with one goal: electing politicians who will take away workers' ability to vote in secret ballot elections when deciding whether to form a union. This antidemocratic proposal, in true Orwellian fashion, is called the Employee Free Choice Act but is better known as Card Check.

The traditional method of union organizing has been through secret ballot elections, overseen by the federal government. However, secret ballot elections give workers the ability to cast their vote free of union intimidation. Secret ballot elections require a commitment of resources some unions would prefer to spend beefing up their political clout. And even though unions win 55 percent of elections, the secret ballot process is no sure thing.

Card Check, by contrast, creates a cheap and virtually guaranteed way for unions to win quick-snap organizing drives. Instead of allowing workers to vote in private, union organizers would have free rein to pressure workers into signing legally binding cards stating support for a union. These cards would be signed in public - in front of union organizers and co-workers.

Once more than 50 percent of workers at a facility can be "convinced" to sign a card, all employees in that workplace become unionized, whether or not they signed a card or even knew about the organizing drive. It would then be against the law to have a secret ballot election, even if workers really wanted one.

What kinds of tactics would workers be exposed to under a Card Check system? Congressional testimony reveals that workers targeted by organizing drives often endure constant hounding near the workplace, parking lots, and even repeated visits to their homes. Sometimes they are followed home from work; one union even illegally obtained personal information on workers by copying down their license plates!

Card Check certification is allowed today, but only if union organizers pressure an employer into turning over their workers. Because unions haven't shown how they can help keep employers competitive, few companies willingly go along.

This is what makes Card Check legislation such a high priority for organized labor. If they can outlaw secret ballots, they wouldn't have to prove to workers and employers that they make a positive economic difference.

But pursuing a political solution to organizing is a high-risk strategy. A recent national survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that 85 percent of voters opposed Card Check as anti-worker and anti-democratic. Other polls have confirmed the same thing. Unions will have to spend vast amounts of their members' money to overcome voters' rejection of Card Check. So far, they seem intent on doing just that.

Some progressive unions, especially in the building trades and maritime sectors, have chosen a different course: demonstrating their worth to workers and employers alike by investing in training that makes their members more productive and safer. The workers get valuable skills and the employers get more for their money.

That's a lot better way to grow unions than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on political influence to rob workers of their basic workplace protections.

Steven J. Law is the chief legal officer and general counsel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

- As published in The Washington Times, June 29, 2008