(Editor's note: This Op-Ed originally appeared in The Detroit News on March 20, 2009.)

Congress is now considering the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill designed to make it easier for unions to win the right to represent workers. The bill has triggered a heated debate between unions on one hand and employers and employees themselves on the other.

Yes, you read that right: workers have taken sides with employers against unions. A recent poll undertaken by McLaughlin and Associates, sponsored by the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, showed that 74 percent of union households (!) opposed the card-check provisions that are the most controversial part of EFCA.

Currently, when a union and an employer cannot agree on whether or not a union has the support of a majority of workers, the government supervises a secret-ballot election to settle the matter. Under EFCA's card-check provision, a union is put in place once it collects authorization cards signed by a majority of workers, without a vote. Because the union controls the entire process - there's no monitoring by either the government or the employer - card-check is open to all manner of fraud and abuse.

EFCA also creates a binding arbitration process that allows a government agent to decide wages and working conditions in newly organized companies. Unlike a negotiated agreement, workers will not be able to reject an arbitration award.

Why are unions pursuing a bill so controversial that it creates a rift between them and workers? Because unions are losing members, but apparently aren't willing to deal with the very substantial reasons why workers often reject unions. A few illustrative examples:

  • Last July a PowerPoint presentation on the "Reform Michigan Government Now" ballot proposal was found on a UAW Web site. The document revealed that the entire proposal was intended to ensure Democratic Party control of state government by stealth.
  • More recently, the extent to which union work rules and benefits have damaged the ability of domestic automakers to compete has been a bone of contention in the larger debate over auto company bailouts.
  • On more than one occasion the Michigan Education Association has called or threatened an illegal strike in order to protect MESSA, a health insurance administrator with close and long-running ties to MEA leadership.
  • A Mackinac Center study of union financial disclosure found that less than half of the typical union's spending went toward worker representation.
  • The Teamsters remain under the watchful eye of an Independent Review Board, set up to monitor organized crime.

Union officials argue that employers are resorting to underhanded tactics to pressure workers, but there are plenty of reasons why workers might doubt the value of union representation: rank political partisanship, economic ineptitude that can ultimately cost workers their jobs, self-dealing, waste and corruption.

The most troubling aspect of the unions vs. workers fight over EFCA is the extent to which unions have abandoned the basic principles of democracy. That undemocratic posture was on full display in Teamsters President James Hoffa's column in the March 13 Detroit News, in which he derided those of us who "argue that the secret ballot is the linchpin of democracy, that it would be somehow un-American to take it away," and then asserted that "the difference between despotism and democracy is not the secret ballot, but whether workers have the right to bargain collectively."

In other words, James Hoffa is apparently of the opinion that taking away secret-ballot votes is perfectly normal, and that democracy consists of workers having unions; the actual process of voting being unimportant. There are a lot of workers who disagree with him on that.

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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 author and the Center are properly cited.

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