Now that the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate is official, a little-known bill that he co-sponsored and running mate Joe Biden vigorously supported is rightly gaining more attention.
The Orwellian-named “Employee Free Choice Act,” which passed the House in 2007 but stalled in the Senate, would fundamentally tip the balance of power in the U.S. labor market from workers to unions.
Currently, most unions that wish to represent workers first must get signatures on union cards from 30 percent of workers. If the union achieves this threshold, the National Labor Relations Board orders a secret- ballot vote to certify the union. Workers then anonymously cast their ballots to decide whether they want union representation. If 50 percent plus one vote favorably, the union is certified.
Obama would allow unions to be certified without a secret ballot vote. If enough workers (50 percent plus one) sign cards in the initial step, the union could be certified automatically. This alternative process is referred to as card-check.
There is important evidence based research north of the border regarding the likely effects of such a change. Several Canadian provinces have reverted from one type of certification to the other, offering a natural experiment from which we can glean insights.
British Columbia, for example, introduced secret-ballot voting in 1984, went back to card-check in 1993 and then switched back in 2001. Professor Chris Riddell of Queen’s University found that success rates declined by an average of 19 percentage points after the secret ballot was introduced and then increased by about the same amount when card checks were reinstituted.
Not surprisingly, union boosters are tantalized by the prospects of markedly higher success in organizing workers. However, that success comes at a great price. The card-check system removes the core democratic principle of secret-ballot voting.
Card-check advocates normally respond by arguing that employers suppress actual worker preferences by intimidating them during the voting.
Studies do indicate that there is employer opposition and that it does have an effect. But manv of these so-called employer opposition tactics include activities such as hiring lawyers, meetings with board members and communications to workers. Most of these activities would not be categorized by any reasonable observer as intimidating workers.
The Canadian evidence indicates that employer intimidation, defined as instances of unfair labor practices, is actually quite small. The Riddell study, for instance, estimated that only one-fourth of the reduction in union success rates was due to employer opposition.
Another prominent study, however. found no overall significant effect of employer opposition on union success rates. but simply, the reduced success of unions in organizing workers when secret-ballot voting is required is not fully or even largely explained by employer intimidation.
Eliminating the ability of workers to vote anonymously for a union would increase union success rates, but at a great cost by eliminating the core democratic right of workers to vote on representation. It is also clear that the standard union argument regarding employer intimidation is not supported by the evidence.
Rather, the lack of anonymity inherent in a card-check system and the confrontational nature of the union drive under card-check are at the heart of observed union success. Everyone, including union advocates, should be wary of legislation that tips the balance of power so far in the direction of one party and, even more disconcertingly, does so by eliminating the basic right to vote.