Card Checks

CARD CHECKS….The Employee Free Choice Act is coming up for a vote in the House shortly, and the business community is pulling out all the stops to kill it in its tracks. [UPDATE: It just passed. Next stop is the Senate.] In case you’re wondering what the fuss is about, here’s a lightly modified reposting of a piece I did about it a few months ago:

If you run a union and you want to organize a new site — a Wal-Mart store, let’s say — how do you do it? That is, what’s the technical mechanism for getting legal recognition of your union?

Choice A is a secret ballot (aka an “NLRB election”). The prospective union campaigns for recognition, management campaigns against them, and eventually there’s a secret vote. If the union gets a majority of the vote, they win recognition.

Choice B is what’s known as a “card check.” Both sides campaign as before, but there isn’t the frenzy associated with a single election day. Instead, the union tries to persuade workers to sign cards authorizing a union, and if they manage to collect cards from a majority of workers they petition to be recognized as the collective bargaining unit for the site.

So which is better? The business community prefers secret ballots because it gives them more control over the process, more opportunity to harrass union reps, and results in fewer union recognitions. Unions prefer card checks for the opposite reason. Both processes are used frequently in other contexts and neither one violates any fundamental principles of fairness. So which is better?

Basically, the answer is that you want a process that best reflects the actual wishes of the workers by allowing them to make an honest choice free of coercion. Theory won’t help much here, so this boils down to an empirical question: which process, in practice, produces less worker coercion from both management and organized labor? Ezra Klein reports the results of a recent survey:

During the NLRB election, 46% of workers complained of management pressure. During card check elections, 14% complained of union pressure. Workers in NLRB elections were twice as likely as workers in card check elections to report that management coerced them to oppose.

The survey, commissioned by American Rights at Work (a pro-labor group) and conducted by two professors at Rutgers University and Jesuit Wheeling University, is here.

It’s impossible to devise a process that eliminates coercion entirely. But the evidence in favor of card checks is twofold: first of all, it turns out that card checks result in less overall coercion than NLRB elections. Second, labor coercion is fundamentally less oppressive than management coercion, since management has the power to fire election coordinators, threaten to shut down plants, bribe workers, etc. — and research suggests they do all these things in startling amounts. The result is that in recent decades management coercion has simply been a much more serious problem than labor coercion.

The original purpose of secret NLRB ballots was to reduce management coercion of union organizing efforts, and it’s that goal that’s important, not the 70-year-old ballot mechanism itself. Card checks don’t eliminate coercion from either side, but they do reduce it dramatically. It’s a fundamentally fairer system for workers and, it turns out, a far less contentious and hostile process for both sides.

UPDATE: In case you’re wondering how management harasses workers during organizing campaigns, here’s a case study and here are some stats. A bit of googling will turn up plenty more if you need further convincing.