Card check

CARD CHECK…. The Employee Free Choice Act, its prospects on the Hill, and its support from Barack Obama have already generated considerable interest, and appear to be one of the key Democratic proposals that will draw the most heated Republican opposition. Indeed, opposition began in earnest in the fall, when a group of Southern Republican senators blocked aid to U.S. auto manufacturers, calling it the “first shot against organized labor.”

In a provocative piece for the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly, editor T. A. Frank pays particular attention to the bill’s “card check” provision, which would empower workers to certify a union by having a majority of employees fill out cards authorizing a union to represent them. Frank argues that EFCA is an important bill, but the card-check provision isn’t worth fighting for.

The question, then, is how much of a fight the card check provision merits. And the answer is probably a little, but not a lot. What most undermines the secret-ballot process is that employers can violate the law in numerous ways without consequences. Under EFCA, however, every illegal action has the potential to be costly, so firings, spying, threats, or other forms of intimidation would be less likely. Also, there is an alternative way to preserve the secret ballot while guarding against company malfeasance: expedited elections. Under current law, months can go by between when NLRB announces the results of a card check vote and when a secret-ballot election is held. If, however, this campaign window were reduced to just a few days, employers would have less opportunity to intimidate union supporters into changing their minds. Workers I spoke to in Lancaster seemed content with this alternative. And some savvy people in the labor movement I spoke to feel the same way — provided that employers either refrain from captive-audience campaigning or else grant union members equal access to the workplace during a campaign.

Given that card check is substantively minor, why has it come to define the entire debate about EFCA in Washington? Because it is the one element of the bill that its opponents can object to and still seem principled — it’s easier to stand up for “democracy” than for the right of companies to break labor laws without consequence. And all of this factors into the gamesmanship that’s likely to take place on Capitol Hill over EFCA. Commentators like Marc Ambinder have called the fight “a quandary” for Democrats, one that carries a risk of disastrous failure. But must it come to that? Deploying political capital wisely means fighting over what matters most, not what matters least. Perhaps the bill’s proponents in Congress intend to stand firm in their defense of the card check provision of EFCA. But if they strategically retreat, at just the right moment, like a matador lifting his red cape, will liberals accuse Democrats of selling out labor? Or will they realize that, with or without card check, EFCA will still accomplish what’s most needed — finally, at long last, restoring the rights of workers who seek to organize?

It’s an interesting argument. Take a look.