Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won't back down.

— Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

 

The following general principle should be fairly uncontroversial: Where workers genuinely want union representation, they ought to have it. When they don't, a union ought not to be imposed on them.

It also seems pretty reasonable to say that when there is a question about what workers want, the best way to settle the question is a secret ballot vote.

Union officials in Michigan and across the country appear to have rejected the notion that choosing or declining a union is ultimately the workers' prerogative. They clearly have repudiated the idea of secret ballot votes. This is a development that could put workers in a tough position. At some point a lot of Michigan workers will need to make a stand. They will be better off making that stand sooner rather than later.

Unions typically collect signatures from interested workers on what are known as "authorization cards." When presented with signed cards from a sufficient number of employees, a company may accept a union's claim to have the support of a majority of workers and recognize that union as their representative without a vote. In some cases workers may submit a petition of their own to force a vote even if the company is willing to skip that step. A secret ballot vote isn't automatic, but the law is set up so that if there is a question about a union's support, it gets tested by the fairest, most reliable means possible.

Under the Employee Free Choice Act, which has the adamant support of most union officials, a large portion of Congress and President-elect Barack Obama, an employer will be obligated to recognize a union when presented with signatures. Secret ballot votes — if any are held — will be strictly at the union's discretion.

The process of establishing union representation via signatures alone — known as "card-check," has been known for years to be a flawed one, which is why the law has allowed employers to call for an election for decades and why the National Labor Relations Board created the procedure for workers to call a vote roughly a year ago. The problem is that there's no way to know whether or not the signature represents an informed choice to back a union. That signature could also have been garnered through intimidation or deception. Unlike an election, there's no privacy and no monitor to ensure that the whole thing is done fairly. Incidents of intimidation by union officers in card-check campaigns are legion: workers have been harassed by union officers, been visited at their homes by union officials without notice or invitation, and told they would be fired if they fail to sign.

Unions typically receive fewer votes in secret ballot elections than the number of authorization cards they have that were signed. As one Teamsters union Web site puts it: "cards don't vote." Numerous unions are on record stating that a union should not go ahead with a vote unless they have signed cards from around 70 percent of workers.

Doing away with the secret ballot would put workers in a vulnerable position: unions could resort to intimidation and deception to gain signatures, and then impose their representation over workers who at bottom do not really want the union there.

The absence of a right-to-work law in Michigan would become even more important if EFCA is passed. In a right-to-work state, workers cannot be forced to pay membership dues or agency fees as a condition of employment. That minimizes the incentive for unions to insert themselves in workplaces where they are not wanted — union opponents can refuse to join and pay dues. But in Michigan unions can expect full dues and fees from workers they represent whether they have genuine worker support or not.

So workers who want to keep the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not they want a union have a difficult choice: they can take a stand against the EFCA now and preserve secret ballot votes, or they may need to stand firm against union intimidation later. Either way, there ain't no easy way out.

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Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the Center are properly cited.

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