It seems as if every day, Congress introduces another piece of legislation that has everyone debating whether or not it will be good for U.S. competitiveness, the economy, and the worker. One such piece of proposed legislation has raised questions not only about its impact on competitiveness, but also about a basic right that many of us take for granted: the right to cast a vote, a secret ballot, that preserves our privacy and keeps (or at least minimizes) the chance of intimidation and other undue influence that could arise from having that vote publicly known. That piece of legislation? The Employee Free Choice Act (also known as Card Check). This act is about more than electing to be represented by a union, but the unionization element is the key aspect of the legislation that has proponents and opponents battling it out, and it’s the linchpin that is putting the privacy in the voting booth at risk.


History and Perspective


The United States has a long history of labor (e.g., unions) battling company management and owners over the right to organize and be represented. We also have a long history of having the right to vote to determine our own destinies. Part of the history of unions and voting has been a process in which workers petitioned for the right to vote whether or not to be represented by a union. Workers demanded to have a period of time during which both the union and management/owners presented their cases for and against the union. The historical process has been employees saying, “I want to hear about my options, then I’ll decide.”


“Free Choice”?


The Employee Free Choice Act (Card Check) proposes to remove a step. If the majority of employees have signed the petition for the union (and this is verified through certification process), then there is no vote. The union is in and begins representing the workers.


Opponents say that the “no election” process means that employees may not have a full understanding of the implications and impact of the union at the time they sign the petition for union petition. Further, management doesn’t get a chance to rebut the statements and representations being presented during the process of getting the signatures on the petition. Opponents also assert that this bill is merely meant to fix the decline of union membership.


Proponents of the act argue that employees have already made up their minds by signing the petition, so it makes sense to move ahead with union representation. Again, from a historic perspective, the signing of a card to allow for the “campaign” to begin is like signing a petition to put a person’s name on the ballot for an election. It doesn’t mean you are going to vote for a candidate; it just means you think that person should have a chance to be heard and to run for office—nothing more, nothing less. It opens the floor for fair and honest debate where both sides (in this case, union and management) can discuss issues and make their cases. Then, with the campaigning done, a vote can be taken. Everyone can make their decision in privacy, with no one staring at them or having pressure applied (as a group or individually); with no threats of reprisal against their jobs for voting for the union or no intimidation for not supporting the union from coworkers. Vote your conscience: it’s just you and your beliefs and opinions as you cast your ballot. Then the votes are totaled and the winner is announced. That’s the American Way!


Now let’s think of the process under the “Free Choice” way:


“Come on Jim…sign the card. Everyone else is doing it. You don’t want to be the only holdout, do you? Man what are you thinking?” (As the group stands around you, staring you down…)


“Sign the card. The union can get us better wages, more benefits!”


“But I’ve been in a Union before … I’ve paid the dues, but I’ve also seen the plants closed. I’ve been forced to go out on strike and not been able to pay my bills. I don’t want to sign the card.”


“It’s not going to be that way this time. All us of agree this is the best thing for all of us; sign the card! If you don’t sign the card, you’re siding with the owners and managers …”


I could give you a scenario of a conversation with the owners and managers, but that would most likely be an illegal conversation scenario, since most of the activities of owners and management of an organization under unionization activity are more highly scrutinized. So management (for good or bad) doesn’t get the ability to campaign against the union. Arguably, the history of how a company has been run is the campaign, but that’s not really what happens. Management and owners may not always be fair and may not always operate things under the best of conditions, but a union may not have the answers either… or improve the situations for the workers.


Management Versus the Union: No WIN/WIN


Okay, I can hear you now: “She’s management” or “She’s anti-union.” No, I’m not. My grandfather helped unionize plants decades ago and had many physical scars to prove it, including a broken nose. I worked in the automotive industry and even worked in the plant as a production supervisor. Those jobs are tough and hard, with very long hours. My uncles and cousins belonged (and belong) to various unions. Sometimes it worked for them … and sometimes it cost them their jobs and the plants they worked at. They went on strike and non-union workers got the jobs, and still have them today. Union workers and unions can play important roles, but it has to be in a role working to represent the workers AND understanding that the objective is a WIN/WIN for the companies and the workers. Losing industries and jobs isn’t going to do anyone any good.


The same applies to management and owners as it does for workers and unions. Both sides need each other. Without the worker there is no business, no productivity, no company, no competing, and no profitability. Workers aren’t mindless robots without dreams, families or country. They aren’t “plant rats” and uneducated masses without understanding or ideas. They are mostly hard-working, honest “Main Street” Americans putting food on the table and a roof over the heads of their families, who want to know they can pay for college and retirement, take vacation, and have some of the good things in life along the way. Remember the American Dream? They don’t want more than their fair share and the freedom to vote without undue influence and to have their votes count!


Unions: Another Big Corporation?


Many unions have become what they fought against: big corporations with leaders that get big perks and big salaries. They have become as dysfunctional and detached from the people they purport to represent as the corporations they seek to get concessions and contracts with. So, we have the worker, the corporations, the unions, and the politicians all representing “the little guy” and “Middle America.” In reality, workers standing up for their own rights and interests are pretty much on their own, regardless of who is representing them.


On a recent television news program, a member of Congress assured the interviewer that the right to a traditional vote (i.e., the traditional secret ballot) was going to be preserved in the new version of the “Free Choice” Act. Forgive me for being cynical and asking the question, but why do we need a new “Free Choice” if we’ve had the right to unionize for decades? Maybe it gets down to political interests and contributions and not the right to a “free choice” when all is said and done.


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