A Balance for Labor

Monday, March 12, 2007

THE HOUSE has passed organized labor's top legislative priority, a measure that would make it far easier for unions to organize: They could get a majority of workers to sign cards rather than having to win a contested election. The proposal's prospects of getting past the Senate's 60-vote hurdle are dim, however, and its chances of surviving the threatened presidential veto are dimmer. That is a good thing: the Employee Free Choice Act would take a playing field tilted too far in the direction of employers and tip it way back in the other direction.

The so-called card-check arrangement would give labor too much power to spring unions on employers . Employers who don't want to see their workers organize deserve a chance to make that case to employees in advance of the decision.

In addition, employees who are skeptical of or opposed to bringing a union into the workplace deserve the protections of a secret-ballot election rather than having to face pressures from colleagues pushing them to sign unionization cards.

Our disagreement with those aspects of the Employee Free Choice Act, however, should not suggest our happiness with the status quo. The most useful result that the House action and the forthcoming Senate debate could produce would be finding ways in which the inadequacies of the existing system could be addressed.

One of labor's contentions is that the existing enforcement system is so weak that only the most committed, if not foolhardy, workers will take the risk of trying to organize. That grim assessment may well be accurate, in which case one answer that we would support is contained in the House-passed legislation: beefed-up penalties for illegally firing employees and higher fines for employers who deliberately interfered with employees' organizing rights.

Another argument is that existing law and legal interpretations leave employers free to browbeat, if not threaten, captive audiences of workers considering forming unions; in the meantime, labor is relegated to standing outside the factory gates or workplace doors. Here, too, we think there is room for creative legislative solutions. Some Canadian provinces, for instance, minimize the time within which an election must be held to reduce the threat of intimidation or coercion. So does a new British labor law, which also requires that unions get a chance to make their case to employees in the workplace.

Organized labor's press to pass the Employee Free Choice Act is understandable. Union representation has fallen from 20 percent of the workforce in 1980 to 12 percent today; just over 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions. The ability of employees to organize -- indeed, even the prospect that they could do so -- is a critical component of achieving fairness in the workplace, and it is a core democratic right. Labor and its legislative allies would do better to concentrate on finding practical ways to protect it, rather than seeking a politically unachievable, and substantively unwise, result.

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