Labor reform debate needed

It’s no surprise that the labor movement is behind the Democratic Party and presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama. The union movement has normally maintained cordial, if not intimate, ties with Democrats. Some estimate that unions will spend nearly $1 billion this election cycle in support of Democrats.

What’s different this year is the depth of union demands. Union bosses are promoting some of the most radical changes in U.S. labor laws in generations.

One such change is how unions become workers’ bargaining agents, or certification. Currently, a threshold number of workers — 30 percent — must indicate support for union representation. Once this threshold is met, the National Labor Relations Board issues a decision in support of a vote for union certification. The union must then garner 50 percent plus one of a secret-ballot vote.

Labor is pushing for a type of automatic certification referred to as “card-check.” This would allow a union to be certified without a secret-ballot vote if enough workers sign union cards in the initial stage.

Imagine this principle in any other type of collective decision, such as national elections. Get enough people to sign Democratic Party membership cards and, presto, no need for an election.

Canada provides a perfect example of what happens with card-check. In 2004, Professor Christopher Riddell investigated British Columbia’s experience between 1978 and 1998. This period is instructive because the province switched from card check to secret ballot and then reverted to card check.

Riddell concluded that union success rates fell by 19 percent after mandatory secret ballot voting was introduced and then increased by nearly the same amount when it was eliminated.

The results are intuitive: Shifting power to unions results in higher union success, while balancing power between workers, unions and employers results in less union success.

An easier and less democratic method of certifying unions is only one of labor’s many demands. There is also talk of undoing right-to-work legislation.

Right to work allows workers to choose whether to become union members if their company unionizes and permits them to opt out of all union dues. The implication of undoing these laws is simple: higher union rates and more money for unions.

These changes pose a serious risk to the U.S. economy.

One of the economy’s lasting strengths has been its flexibility, particularly its labor flexibility. Introducing card-check certification and eliminating worker choice with respect to union membership and dues payment will impose profound costs on U.S. workers and the economy as whole.

Given the gravity of the costs associated with these changes, the nation has a huge stake in making labor reform the subject of serious debate this election season.

Clemens, a Canadian, is director of research at the Pacific Research Institute (

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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