Card check, or The Employee Free Choice Act, has become the cause of the day for the labor movement and its Congressional liberal allies. The name itself is meant to confuse, since a free secret ballot already guarantees freedom of the work force to choose whether or not to make their workplace unionized. Since the days of the New Deal and labor’s hard fought battles of the 30′s, the Wagner Act- or The Labor Relations Act of 1936-already established the right of unions to hold secret ballot elections for representation, supervised by a National Labor Relations Board.
What the newly proposed Act would do, as AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney explains, is to establish that “if a majority of the employees in your workplace sign cards saying that they want to join a union, you’ll get your union, plain and simple.” It seems fair the way Sweeney puts it: “This would go a long way to restore the freedom of workers to choose a union, which…has been whittled down after for generations to nearly nothing.”
The first thing to note in this new Act is that all privacy and secrecy disappears. Let us say you feel intimidated and pressured by those of your fellow workers who are adamant on behalf of unionization, and you tend to disagree with them on the benefits of representation. All of them would now know how you came down on the issue. That kind of pressure could lead to a great deal of unpleasantness at work, even to situations making it intolerable for you to any longer stay on that particular job.
On the other hand, let’s say you favor unionization, and the majority of your fellow workers do not. The openness and lack of secrecy and a secret ballot means that you will stick out like a sore thumb, making you an open target for those in the company who do not want unionization and will more than likely make things much tougher on you. Indeed, that kind of situation is precisely what led the labor movement to fight in the 30′s for the Wagner Act, and to demand a secret ballot as a sine qua non for any chance of gaining union representation.
But those days of the militant labor movement have long disappeared, and unionized workers have become a smaller and smaller percentage of the work force in the blue collar industries that still remain. The union’s successes have come instead in our own age in the public service sector of the economy, particularly among federal and state government employees. These government employees have already been organized, so now the AFL-CIO is turning its sight on remaining private sector employers. It is interesting that Sweeney singles out for condemnation none other than McDonald’s, which has mobilized its 2400 franchises to oppose card check. McDonald’s, whose individual franchises employ a small number of people in different shifts, is hardly akin to the old auto and steel plants that figured so predominantly in the organizing days of the 1930′s.
What if each franchise was unionized? Immediately, the AFL-CIO union that was chosen to represent its employees would demand large wage increases, increased health benefits, and the like. The effect would more than likely put out of business many of those franchises, whose owners could no longer afford to make a profit and stay open. The result would be an end to employment of the part-time, student and unskilled people who otherwise would have held those jobs. No wonder so many of these small owners would, in Sweeney’s words, “fight tooth and nail to keep their employees from having that kind of bargaining power.”
This reminds me of what happened in New York a few decades ago, when the favorite bookstore of New York liberals, progressives and leftists, the fabled “8th Street Bookshop” run by E.S. Wilentz, faced an organizing drive and picket lines made up of those who used to be its most frequent customers. Within a short time, Wilentz was forced to close down forever, thereby causing New York City to lose one of its few independent and thriving bookstores. He simply could not afford to stay in business and meet the conditions the union demanded.
Sweeney also argues that in electing Barack Obama, America’s workers voted for “good jobs, health care for all, and the chance of working people to keep a fair share of the wealth.” Perhaps. But can he prove that in voting for Obama, they voted for card check? Somehow, I doubt it.
That is why the campaign against the Act and radio ads by George McGovern are so significant, and why the American Conservative Union chose to honor him for “courage under fire” at the upcoming CPAC convention. The bill, McGovern said, is one of “undemocratic overreach,” an understatement if there ever was one. The former Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate told The Hill that secret ballot elections are a “basic right” of Americans, and a “very important part of our democracy.” And McGovern still considers himself a longtime advocate and friend of organized labor. Indeed, he wrote his Ph.D. thesis in history on a classic labor struggle, the Ludlow massacre and its background. It was first published in 1996 as The Great Coalfield War, co-authored with Leonard Guttridge.
That McGovern openly broke ranks with organized labor- one of his oldest and strongest group of supporters- says a great deal about his integrity and sense of purpose. No wonder the AFL-CIO Organizing Director termed his defection “shocking.” McGovern is not to be intimidated, despite the fact that liberal groups have given out his private e-mail address so that he can be inundated with spam attacking him. McGovern simply says: “I’m doing it because I believe it’s an important right that should be protected.” In his radio ad he says: “It’s hard to believe that any politician would agree to a law denying millions of employees the right to a private vote. I have always been a champion of labor unions. But I fear that today’s union leaders are turning their backs on democratic workplace elections.”
And so they are. In this day and age, as political lines are crossing, we now find a lifelong liberal Democrat and supporter of unions working alongside conservatives to defeat the labor movement’s top priority. Things are not so simple anymore. People who think like George McGovern can no longer sing so easily labor’s old anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”