Union Election Secret Ballots May Be in Jeopardy

Published February 1, 2009

Democratic Party gains in the U.S. Senate as a result of the November 4 general election signal an increased chance for passage of a measure that would fundamentally change labor relations in the U.S.

The Employee Free Choice Act, or “card check,” is a major priority for organized labor. The bill would eliminate the current practice of requiring secret-ballot elections for workers covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Instead, a union would officially be recognized when 50 percent of eligible workers in a unit sign authorization cards in support of the union. Card check proponents say there is a need to increase the ease of unionization of workers, while opponents say the elimination of the secret ballot would open the process to coercion and intimidation of workers.

Card check also would provide mandatory arbitration for first-time labor contracts if business and labor negotiators cannot agree. Such an arrangement, critics argue, forces both sides to accept an educated guess as to what a third party would rule.

President Barack Obama signaled on numerous occasions during the 2008 campaign his willingness to support and sign the card check bill.

$600 Million from Unions

Brian Johnson, director of the Alliance for Worker Freedom in Washington, DC, said, “with union contributions of $600 million to the political left this election cycle, organized labor will want something in return—and that something is EFCA.”

EFCA passed the U.S. House in 2007, but a Republican filibuster in the Senate halted its progress. In 2009, Republicans will have at most 42 seats in the Senate, enough to filibuster again if party members stay together.

Economic uncertainties may temporarily decrease union enthusiasm for EFCA. “Unions are not going to push something that will expand unionization on the same domestic manufacturing base that is having so many problems,” Johnson said.

The first priority of labor unions, Johnson says, will be to secure a government loan to the troubled U.S. automakers. “Of course, the problems are not with the auto industry [in general], the problems are with the unionized auto industry,” he said.

“Rather than pushing the EFCA right off the bat,” Johnson continued, “the unions may want to save their sweetheart multibillion-dollar pension funds that would otherwise be renegotiated under a Chapter 11 filling—hence their urgency to push the bailout.”

Scott Dilley ([email protected]) is a labor policy analyst at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.