Politics & Policy

The ‘Shut Up’ Candidate

Obama's labor pick wants to silence critics and rig the rules in union elections.

Barack Obama and his closest allies have a message for America, and that message is: “Shut up.”

Obama himself is famous for telling his critics to shut up: “I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking,” he said while defending his so-far ineffective economic-recovery agenda. “I want them to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking.” The president used the State of the Union address to hector, in a most unstatesmanlike fashion, the justices of the Supreme Court for upholding the First Amendment right of nonprofits and businesses to make their voices heard before elections, and demanded that Congress pass legislation to shut them up. Endlessly described as “articulate,” the president apparently desires to monopolize the conversation. But Craig Becker, his nominee to the powerful National Labor Relations Board, surpasses the president in that he has made an entire legal and political philosophy out of “shut your trap.”

The NLRB is one of our most defective public institutions. Charged with policing unfair labor practices in general, and with overseeing union-organizing votes in particular, the NLRB is far from a neutral referee — it acts principally as an organ of the unions themselves, and it bristles with hostility toward business owners who are not eager to have their operations organized by the likes of the Teamsters or the ACORN-affiliated Service Employees International Union.

Becker, a lawyer for the AFL-CIO and SEIU, in many ways fits the mold of a typical Democratic pick for the agency, but there are three reasons to have serious reservations about putting him in such a powerful position. First: His opinions are extreme. He has argued that workers should be allowed to choose only between unions, not between a union and no representation, and he wants employers to be banned from even attending NLRB hearings about union elections. On the subject of the NLRB itself, he has gone so far as to write that “employers should have no right to be heard in either a representation case or an unfair labor practice case, even though Board rulings might indirectly affect their duty to bargain. In other words: Shut up. Second: He is affiliated with ACORN, a corrupt enterprise that works the intersection of Big Labor and politics for its own benefit. Third: He has lied to Congress about his relationship with ACORN. On all of those grounds, his nomination should be opposed, vigorously.

Becker’s various legal opinions share a peculiar theme: That of restricting the choices of both workers and business owners who do not wish to be affiliated with a labor union. There are many good reasons for both workers and owners to oppose unionization: Workers know from experience that the union bosses frequently prove more abusive and meddlesome than the worst of employers; and the history of the union-choked American automobile and steel industries, to take just two examples of many, suggest that the long-term consequences of union interference often include sector-wide bankruptcy and the loss of domestic jobs to more flexible (not necessarily cheaper — those Japanese steelworkers who outperformed their American counterparts weren’t exactly working for minimum wage) foreign competitors. Given a choice, many workers will elect not to join a union. Becker’s relentless support of “card check,” which in effect strips workers of their right to a secret ballot when voting on whether to organize a union, is one indicator of his hostility to letting workers and businesses choose for themselves, but there are even more troubling signs.

He has argued that businesses should be prohibited from presenting the case against organizing unions — to their own workers, on their own property, on their own time. And if secret-ballot elections survive his card-check dreams, he doesn’t want anybody taking too close a look at any possibly fraudulent election: He has written that employers should be banned from placing observers at the polls or challenging ballots. He argues that businesses should be compelled to open up their own private property so that union organizers may conduct their electioneering on the premises.

So what if the organizing vote is fraudulent? Or marked by the trademark violence and intimidation tactics long associated with Big Labor? Becker’s answer, in his own words, is this: “Employers should have no right to raise questions concerning voter eligibility or campaign conduct. . . . They should not be entitled to charge that unions disobeyed the rules governing voter eligibility or campaign conduct. On the questions of unit determination, voter eligibility, and campaign conduct, only the employee constituency and their potential union representatives should be heard.” Legalese for: “Shut up.”

Richard Epstein of the Hudson Institute, a personal friend and basketball buddy of Becker’s, writes that Becker’s argument is “instructively incorrect” and would radically tilt the balance of power in favor of the union bosses to the disadvantage of business owners, who would see their free-speech rights significantly restricted by the rules Becker desires to enact.

Becker has worked for the SEIU, which has ties to ACORN, whose vote-fraud shenanigans and other dodgy activities are well known. Asked about his ties to ACORN by Sen. John McCain, Becker said that he had never done any work for “ACORN or ACORN-affiliated groups.” But we have a very good source confirming that the SEIU is ACORN-affiliated: ACORN, which listed various SEIU locals as affiliated groups on its website until that fact was noted by the Washington Examiner. (The uncensored page is available for your inspection here.)

ACORN’s usual modus operandi is to obscure its relationships to the greatest extent possible, but they are clear enough: sharing the same address with SEIU locals, millions of dollars in cozy financial relationships, etc. As the Examiner notes: “U.S. Department of Labor LM-2’s (financial disclosure forms) point to over $600,000 in transactions between these same SEIU locals and other ACORN operations. A 2007 LM-2 form shows SEIU Local 880, which is active in Illinois and Minnesota, donated $60,118 to ACORN for ‘membership services.’ Organized labor has kicked it back in the form of gifts and grants to ACORN totaling $2.4 million, the LM-2’s reveal.” SEIU, in turn, poured millions of dollars into the elections of Barack Obama and other Democrats — with $42 million in political expenditures in 2008, it ranked only behind the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee as a big political spender. Whatever one makes of ACORN and SEIU, Becker’s statement that he had never advised ACORN or any “ACORN-affiliated groups” is indefensible, and that alone should be grounds for opposing his appointment.

There is good reason to be worried about the intersection of Big Labor and Big Government. The majority of American union members do not work in the private sector, laboring on assembly lines or in steel mills: More than half are employees of the government, where payrolls are swelling, and where the admixture of union power and government power is particularly noxious. It’s all good and fair that President Obama and his allies should attempt to tip the scales in their own favor, but violating the secret ballot — and the rights of Americans to make themselves heard and be represented in the political process — is wrong. “Shut up” is not much of a motto for a free country, or its leaders.

– Kevin Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review.

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