Private-sector labor unions, slipping to an all-time low of 7.4 percent of the labor force last year, are fighting a desperate battle for survival. They face a nearly insurmountable problem: Workers increasingly believe, for good reason, that unions either provide little in return for their dues or work against their interests.
After losing innumerable certification elections and seeing its steady decline in numbers, Big Labor is turning to the U.S. Congress to secure crucial changes that will rig the game in its favor and allow it to force workers into unions. The battle will move to the House floor next week, where Big Labor’s wish-list bill likely will pass. The measure will face stronger resistance in the Senate and President Bush has promised to veto it if necessary. The stakes are high.
Under existing law, before a union is recognized, an employer has the right to request a federally supervised secret ballot election. This allows both the union and the employer to make their case and lets workers decide on a union without fear of reprisal. Democrats, including congressman George Miller (Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, have historically been strong supporters of the ballot procedure. In 2001 Miller and fifteen other House Democrats wrote to a local government in Mexico: “the secret ballot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure that workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose.”
Miller has since done a 180-degree turn, and is now the lead sponsor of H.R. 800, a bill that, among a slew of labor-law changes tilted toward unions, would abolish secret-ballot elections here in America. The bill would allow unions to organize via so-called “card check” campaigns, in which union representatives can collect signatures to form a union without any privacy protections.
A recent McLaughlin poll found that 89 percent of the public prefer the current process to the card-check procedure, and a recent Zogby poll found that 78 percent of union members prefer the current process to one with less privacy protection.
Why are Democrats discarding principle and pushing for such an undemocratic, unpopular measure? Because Big Labor, one of their key constituencies, is desperate. Unions are losing ground because workers have seen what happened to the steel industry, and what is happening to the auto and airline industries. Unemployment in heavily unionized states is higher than the national average. From 2001 to 2005, wages grew 15 percent faster in the ten states with the least union presence than in the ten states with the most.
Even liberal icon George McGovern noted last year in the Los Angeles Times that unions are no longer necessarily advancing the interests of their workers. In a piece that should be required reading for sincerely pro-worker Democrats, McGovern argued the anti-business attitude of unions to push for ever more pay and benefits without respect to the consequences is ultimately harmful to workers.
The world is changing. The economy is more competitive than ever, and companies compete not just for customers but for workers. Unemployment is at historic lows and companies everywhere are recruiting aggressively. The sharp decline in private-sector union membership, down from 20.1 percent in 1980 to just 7.4 percent in 2006, has coincided with a prolonged period of booming economic growth and rising standards of living.
Can unions adapt to make themselves attractive to private-sector workers in the 21st century? If they can, workers will vote for them in federally supervised, secret-ballot elections. If they can’t, they deserve to continue on their slow march to extinction.
And if Congress rigs the rules to force workers to accept unions they don’t want, union bosses will win and workers will lose.