Pushing the Right Buttons

Workers' Bill of Rights Long Overdue

Adages don’t get to be adages without having at least some truth to them. Take this one, for example: “Unions don’t organize workers, employers do.” The recent resolution of the labor dispute at auto parts manufacturer Johnson Controls Inc., in which thousands of workers were unionized almost overnight, reveals the technical veracity of this labor lawyer maxim.

More and more employers, like Johnson, are now pushing their employees into union arrangements, thanks to their acquiescence to two common demands of Big Labor: misnamed “neutrality agreements” and so-called “card checks.”

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Neutrality agreements, far from engendering impartiality, are actually employer pledges to stand silent during union organizing drives. Employer silence, of course, guarantees a clear field for unopposed pro-union propaganda and deprives employees of information about any potentially adverse workplace consequences they may suffer if they approve union representation.

Card checks involve an employer agreement to recognize a union as the exclusive employee bargaining representative once a majority of employees have signed union authorization cards. These checks bypass the normal legal procedure, which calls for a secret-ballot vote of all affected employees after enough workers “show interest” in unionization by signing authorization cards. However, employees are often misled about the purpose of the cards and may sign them out of peer pressure or to get the organizer off their backs. Therefore, signed authorization cards are unreliable as indicators of employee sentiment regarding unionization.

These two kinds of private employer-union deals, often referred to as “push-button unionism,” seem like the type of cozy labor-management arrangements the National Labor Relations Act was intended to prevent; instead, lack of government scrutiny allows them to flourish.

So why do employers go along with push-button unionism? The reason is usually union “corporate campaigns.” These sleazy tactics leverage the power of public relations, litigation, labor disruptions, activists, and media to damage a targeted employer’s reputation among its suppliers, customers, and shareholders. (Remember how evil, mean, and rotten UPS was a few years ago?) The campaign’s objective is to establish a “moral standard” that the targeted employer somehow has failed to meet. Unsurprisingly, the rectification of the employer’s moral failure always involves pressuring it into accepting neutrality agreements or card-check recognition so as to influence or avoid altogether an employee vote on unionization.

And employee voting on unionization is down. According to recent election statistics from the National Labor Relations Board, unions are holding fewer elections—from 2,896 in 2000 down to 2,378 in 2001—and winning them only slightly more frequently, 53.6 percent of the time in 2001 up from 52.7 percent in 2000. Yet the number of union workers increased by 17,000 during the same time frame. How many of those 17,000 were allowed to vote for or against unionization and how many were “volunteered” by employer-union agreements like the one at Johnson Controls?

The bottom line is that union corporate campaigns and undemocratic, push-button labor deals run roughshod over the rights of employers and employees to fairly and freely make their own decisions about unionization and should be stopped immediately. Fortunately, U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., is taking up push-button unionism as well as other important labor issues. His recently introduced bill, the Workers’ Bill of Rights (H.R. 4636), would mandate employee secret-ballot elections before a union could legally represent workers. Norwood’s bill also would protect workers’ Beck rights not to be forced to fund union politics they don’t condone, guarantee secret-ballot strike votes for all union-represented employees, and require annual union financial disclosure for all dues-payers.

The labor law changes recommended by Rep. Norwood would not only help safeguard employers from unfair union intimidation tactics, they also would go far in encouraging the authentic voices of workers themselves, ensuring that employees’ choices regarding union representation are preserved in an impartial atmosphere of government-protected privacy. And isn’t worker choice the point of labor law in the first place?

"Union corporate campaigns and undemocratic, push-button labor deals run roughshod over the rights of employers and employees to fairly and freely make their own decisions about unionization."