The overwhelmingly Democratic Congress and that new guy in the White House means that a bunch of stuff that didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of becoming law over the last 14 years has a decent chance of actually happening in 2009. I guess as a card-carrying liberal I should be fairly pleased, but there's one item that everybody's talking about that I simply don't get, even though as a union member, not to mention a left-leaning dude, I'm "supposed" to be a slam-dunk supporter.
It's called the Employee Free Choice Act (and who could oppose something with a name like that?), and it's a measure that supporters say could reinvigorate the labor movement in America. I don't have a problem with the end --not as much as some of you reading this probably do -- but what worries me is the means. There's no doubt the labor movement is at a low ebb in this country -- membership is about half what it was when Ronald Reagan fired the striking air-traffic controllers in 1981 -- and vital workplace protections have suffered as a result.
Indeed, when you read what the advocates say about the current proposal, it tends to focus on the outcome rather than the proposed change in the process, which makes it easier to certify a new union by would-be members simply signing a card, as opposed to the longstanding tradition of a secret ballot. Here's the AFL-CIO's position:
People call the current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election system a secret ballot election—but in fact it's not like any democratic election held anywhere else in our society. It's really a management-controlled election process because corporations have all the power. They control the information workers can receive and routinely poison the process by intimidating, harassing, coercing and even firing people who try to organize unions. No employee has free choice after being browbeaten by a supervisor to oppose the union or being told they may lose their job and livelihood if workers vote for the union.
Much of that is no doubt true, but I believe that a democratic process should be the goal in any decision process like this, and the gold standard for democracy has always been the secret ballot. God knows that in our broader political system, there are all sorts of problems with American elections, from too much big-money influence to issues with voting machines, and the solution was always to try and make the election system better -- not to scrap it for something else. Without the secret ballot, everybody -- both the employer and the union organizers -- knows where employee stands, and strips them of basic right to privacy.
Of all people, George McGovern, who should be enjoying a well-deserved retirement these days, had to step up to the plate with the conscience of a liberal to explain why the Employee Free Choice Act is a bad idea:
To my friends supporting EFCA I say this: We cannot be a party that strips working Americans of the right to a secret-ballot election. We are the party that has always defended the rights of the working class. To fail to ensure the right to vote free of intimidation and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always championed.
Some of the most respected Democratic members of Congress -- including Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, George Miller and Pete Stark of California, and Barney Frank of Massachusetts -- have advised that workers in developing countries such as Mexico insist on the secret ballot when voting as to whether or not their workplaces should have a union. We should have no less for employees in our country.
I worry that there has been too little discussion about EFCA's true ramifications, and I think much of the congressional support is based on a desire to give our friends among union leaders what they want. But part of being a good steward of democracy means telling our friends "no" when they press for a course that in the long run may weaken labor and disrupt a tried and trusted method for conducting honest elections.
McGovern was right about Vietnam and the war in Iraq, and he's sold me on this, too. If union elections are unfairly rigged toward the employer -- and I agree that they most certainly are -- then let's come up with legislative solutions that will make the secret ballot process a more fair one. But the solution to a flawed democratic process should never be to make it less democratic.