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Workplace democracy

Doing away with secret ballot elections in organizing workers would give labor too much power.

March 01, 2007

THE HOUSE of Representatives is expected today to approve a bill, favored by organized labor, whose stated purpose is glaringly at odds with its key provision. The Employee Free Choice Act is portrayed by its supporters as a way to allow workers to choose whether to join a union.

Unfortunately, the legislation would do away with a secret ballot in so-called organizing elections, making it easier for union leaders to pressure co-workers in what should be a free choice. Instead of having the option of insisting on a secret ballot election, employers would have to accept a union formed on the basis of authorization cards signed by workers -- not by a secret process.

Unions and their supporters in the Democratic-controlled Congress say the so-called card-check system is the only way to overcome aggressive (and sometimes illegal) anti-union tactics by employers. In announcing support for the bill, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) complained that employers often fire workers who seek to organize. Such reprisals are illegal, and part of the Employee Free Choice Act increases the sanctions for employer violations.

Unfair labor practices deserve tougher penalties. But improper influence can work both ways. As a rule, union membership improves worker prosperity and safety. Even so, the bedrock of federal labor law is not unionism under any conditions, but the right of workers to choose whether they want to affiliate with a union.

Obviously, employers shouldn't punish workers for wanting to join a union, float falsehoods in trying to influence an organization election or bar union representatives from the workplace. Just as obviously, the penalties they face for doing so are laughable and need to be strengthened. By the same token, however, supporters of unionization shouldn't be able to pressure unwilling or hesitant employees to join a union. And you don't have to be a critic of unions to recognize that the card-check system invites such abuses.

Unions once supported the secret ballot for organization elections. They were right then and are wrong now. Unions have every right to a fair hearing, and the National Labor Relations Board should be more vigilant about attempts by employers to game the system. In the end, however, whether to unionize is up to the workers. A secret ballot ensures that their choice will be a free one.

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