Card-Check Is Dead (Liza Featherstone)

From Slate’s The Big Money blog:

Card-Check Is Dead

Unions are surprisingly bad at politics.

By Liza Featherstone | Posted Thursday, May 21, 2009 – 11:18am

Last Thursday, President Obama pronounced “card check” dead, saying that the current Employee Free Choice Act didn’t have the votes to pass but that a “compromise” could work. By compromise, the president meant a version of the bill without card check, the provision obliging employers to recognize unions after a majority of workers have signed cards, rather than after an election. On the same day, Sen. Arlen Specter, newly “D”-Pa., a key swing vote, said that he, too, would support a “compromise” on EFCA: card-check-free, of course.

These twin announcements sealed what most observers had understood for a while: Card check isn’t happening. The provision has always been imperfect, but its death is a sure sign that the labor movement needs a more effective approach to politics.

Card check was devised as a solution to a simple yet intractable problem: Workers who want to join unions do not get a fair shake. Elections take too long, giving employers plenty of time to hire high-priced union-busting law firms, fire union sympathizers, intimidate and spy upon workers, and do whatever they can do, legally or illegally, to keep the union out. Many people now work for companies like Home Depot (HD), Rite Aid (RAD), or Wal-Mart (WMT) that have plenty of resources to wear unions down and every incentive to do so since their business models depend on underpaid, short-term labor. Specter opposes card check but does support speeding up elections, allowing workers to campaign at their work sites without retaliation, and imposing stiffer penalties for violations of organizing rights.
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Not everyone committed to labor-law reform is mourning card check.

Columbia economist Jagdish Bhagwati, one of EFCA’s most prominent sympathizers, told TBM earlier this spring that he regretted the card-check provision of the bill: “I think that it was a mistake for us who are supporters of unions and unionization to go for card check. I agree that some employers intimidate workers who wish to unionize, but those who do not wish to unionize can also be intimidated by union organizers.” Bhagwati strongly supports secret ballots and thinks it would have been better to try to reform enforcement mechanisms to ensure that illegal intimidation by employers would be punished. Bhagwati also points out that U.S. labor law makes it cripplingly difficult for unions to strike: “If unions cannot strike effectively they become paper tigers, more or less. I would have concentrated on this rather than get diverted into the card-check provision.” He adds, “The card-check provision has unnecessarily cost us some credibility and also some votes, I fear.”

Sandy Pope, president of Teamsters Local 805, which is headquartered in Long Island City, Queens, thinks labor law reform is needed but says she’s “not sad about card check going away.” Pope explains: “I would prefer an expedited election to card check. It’s important for workers to do something as a group. In order to go into bargaining in the strongest possible way, you have to campaign. You have to really want” the union. Pope argues that if unions “treat people like babies” by bypassing the election process, workers won’t build effective organizations that can stand up to the employers’ aggressive behavior at the bargaining table. A shorter election would bypass much of the employers’ current strategy of intimidation and firings, Pope thinks, while preserving the possibility of debate in the workplace and allowing employees to organize, if they choose to do so, rather than passively assent to a visiting bureaucrat.

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