Politics & Policy

Not a Free Choice

How union organizers use underhanded tactics to sign up supporters.

‘By signing the Authorization for Recognition Form, I authorize Political Workers Union Local 123 to represent me in negotiation with CPAC for better speakers, more comfortable seats, and an all you can eat buffet during the conference. And I’ll pay whatever dues you demand.”

More than 1,000 attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference in February signed cards that bore this message at the bottom in small print. They believed they were merely signing up for a raffle to win a Nintendo Wii.

“We were thinking about ways we could further the message while at CPAC, and came up with the idea that we should get people to sign up to become members of a union,” said Danny Diaz of the Workforce Fairness Institute. “It was a bit of a humorous exercise because it wasn’t binding. But if you’re a small business and someone uses these tactics to force you into government arbitration with a union, then it’s not so funny any more.”

To be sure, this was not an exact replication of the “card-check” process by which unions can establish themselves as the representatives of private-sector workers. But it is a scenario far closer to reality than one might expect.

There is no evidence of a sham raffle ever being employed to confuse workers, but unions have been caught using other misleading tactics. In 2007, organizers for the Service Employees International Union in both Oregon and Minnesota were accused of telling workers that by signing cards they were merely requesting information.

There are also stories of clear threats and intimidation by union organizers. Workers have been told that if they didn’t sign, they’d be fired when the union took over. They have been told their tires would be slashed. Ricardo Torres, an organizer for the United Steelworkers, quit his job after he was instructed to tell migrant workers that “they would be reported to federal immigration officials if they refused.”

If some in Congress get their way, underhanded union tactics like these could become more dangerous. Under current law, a card-check drive that gets 50 percent of workers to sign up leads directly to unionization only if the employer consents. If the employer withholds consent, a successful drive results in a secret-ballot election.

The Employee Free Choice Act would take away employers’ right to insist on elections — as soon as half of a company’s employees signed the cards, the union would represent the entire work force. Further, if the employer and the new union couldn’t come to a contract agreement within 90 days of negotiations, the two parties would have to enter mediation. After another 30 days, the parties would enter binding arbitration, meaning that a government-appointed arbiter (or panel) could force both sides to accept a contract. This provision would essentially eliminate any incentive for unions to enter labor negotiations in good faith.

Unions desperately want the EFCA to pass, because unionization has long been declining. Unions still win the majority of the secret-ballot elections that are held, but they tend to lose such elections in cases where they had gotten a bare majority of workers to sign authorization cards. It appears that in the privacy of the voting booth, workers are far less enthusiastic about unionization than they are when confronted by union organizers.

The economic consequences of the EFCA’s passage could be dire. “Small employers would be particularly vulnerable targets, because they’ll be less likely to be able to afford specialized, sophisticated counsel,” labor lawyer Eugene Scalia told NRO.

And passage looks likely. It’s not really a question in the House, which passed the EFCA two years ago (the measure failed to secure the 60 Senate votes needed for cloture), before the most recent election gave the Democrats more seats. President Obama supports card check and will sign it. The only hope is the Senate, but if Al Franken wins the election challenge in Minnesota, the Democrats will have 59 senators — one shy of what is needed (assuming no Democrats defect).

That one crucial vote could be Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the only Republican to cross party lines and vote for the EFCA in 2007.

Specter is already receiving pressure from union leaders to repeat his performance, but now he is also receiving pressure from the right. Former congressman Pat Toomey is discussing a possible primary challenge next spring, and Specter’s poll numbers are in dire shape with Republicans. Furthermore, 81 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans say they are less likely to support a candidate who backs the bill.

Toomey is giving the former Philadelphia prosecutor some incentive to help protect workers’ rights to privacy, and to prevent businesses from being overwhelmed by newly empowered union bosses. Much rides on whether that incentive is sufficient.

– David Freddoso is a National Review Online staff reporter and author of The Case Against Barack Obama.