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Posted by on Nov 20, 2008 in Politics | 5 comments

Card Check. What’s it all about, Alfie?

union.gifAs the debate raged over Card Check during the 2008 election, I kept waiting for somebody to put it in perspective. Surely, I thought, I had been bedazzled by some sort of Right wing trickery. After all, I reasoned, Unions battle on behalf of the worker, keeping the hob nailed boot of management off the collective throat of the middle class. (I should note that this is not sarcasm. I come from a union family and was, for a time, a member of the I.B.E.W. after leaving the military. I’m also well versed in the early history of unions and the important role they played in America.) But the Card Check argument simply didn’t make sense to me, so I decided to look around for some explanation as to why it was a good idea. Today, it seems I found one, though the “good” part may be held in reserve.

In response to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Digby attempts to offer some analysis in “(Card) Check, Please.”

This past election I noticed a new catch phrase. The minute a conservative breathes the word “card check,” his or her supporters completely lose their minds. When he ratchets it up saying “lose your right to a secret ballot” they come completely unhinged with even more energy than they unleash when someone says “we’re going to beat the terrorists.” It’s just weird.

He then goes on to point out portions of Thomas Frank’s WSJ article, including these bits:

[U]nion-certification elections often don’t meet the most basic democratic requirements. Supervisors routinely hold captive-audience meetings with workers in preparation for elections; management commonly threatens to close up shop if the union wins; antiunion employees are frequently rewarded and pro-union employees are sometimes fired.

Card check is about power. Management has it, workers don’t, and business doesn’t want that to change. Consider the remarks made by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott at an analyst meeting on Oct. 28, when he was asked about the possible coming of card check: “We like driving the car and we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us.

You know, if you allow a lot of that to speed past you like a 98 mph fast ball on the inside corner, it actually sounds as if it makes some sense. But under closer scrutiny there are not only some absurd fallacies here, but a complete denial of reverse problems which should be of equal if not greater concern to workers. Mr. Frank worries about management holding meetings which might intimidate workers from seeking collective bargaining, but makes no mention of the fate of workers who might oppose unionization yet wind up in a union shop. Once formed, the union bosses will have tremendous control over the perks and opportunities available to the workers, and being the “anti-union guy” doesn’t leave one in a good position.

There is also zero examination of exactly what is the downside of a secret ballot? If a majority of the workers would be willing to walk up in public and “card check” their union approval, surely they would be equally willing to check “yes” on a secret ballot. So what is the downside to such a system?

And why would workers ever choose to not endorse unionization, or at least have some healthy hesitation? One needs look no further than the UAW and the current state of the Big Three in Detroit. Yes, the automakers have brought more than their fare share of woe upon themselves with incompetent management and an unhealthy attachment to the past while ignoring the needs of a new 21st century world. But their path to a comeback of any sort is nearly doomed before it starts because the union has done its job too well and strangled the goose which lays the golden eggs to the point of putting the bird on life support. A quick look at the labor costs of the car manufacturers, as compared to other American workers of similar starting education and skill levels, tells the whole story.

Total Compensation Per Hour, 2007-2008 (includes wages and all benefits):
Big Three automakers — $73.08
Toyota — $48.00
All workers — $28.48

There is definitely still a place in America for unions, but unlike the Depression era employment landscape, there is also room to be judicious in shopping around for the right union and labor agreements which work on both sides. Getting the best pay and benefits for your members is an admirable goal, but if you eventually sink the employer, then nobody is making any money. I agree with both Digby and Franks that workers need the right and ability to choose a union for collective bargaining should they wish to. But they also deserve the right to choose the other direction (or even ask to examine other unions if the “default choice” isn’t acceptable) and they should all be able to do so in private, sparing them any vendettas in the aftermath should they come out on the losing side of the debate.

Card check still doesn’t sound like freedom from intimidation for workers to me. In fact, it sounds like exactly the opposite, acting as an opportunity to ram unionization down the throats of workers whether they want it or not.

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