Unions and Opinion and Economic Analysis and Labor and Workplace Issues

HICKS: Card check folly and the demise of unions

September 5, 2009

This Labor Day sees the American labor movement in serious decline.

In fact, U.S. private-sector union membership has been in serious decline for three decades. Instead of growing participation during a period of strong economic and population growth, private-sector unions have lost roughly half their members since the Carter administration.

At the current rate, several major unions will disappear in a decade. Why this happened and what union leaders are doing in an attempt to remedy this decline are worthy of critical appraisal.

Union leaders blame the decline on decades-old changes to union bargaining rules. The rise in labor-relations lawyers is often pointed to as evidence of this anti-union bias. That argument is a bit tedious.

First, the only unions to enjoy any success are in the public sector—teachers, professors, firefighters and others. If legislation could (or should) cripple unions, legislatures would start at home. Second, how can it be that after surviving decades of violence from the likes of Pinkerton guards, union leaders have been vanquished by lawyers in tasseled loafers?

The real story is simple. Unions have done little good for workers for a long time. They have not stopped collecting dues, and it finally caught up with them. This arrangement did not sit well with many rank-and-file members. The way unions have spent this money—primarily on a select number of political candidates and causes—has also brought the ire of members.

The long decline of unions is well-chronicled. But, today, instead of convincing workers that unions have something to offer, the American labor movement is peddling the end of the secret ballot. A piece of legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act, or “card check,” promises to do just that to American workers—remove their right to vote on union representation. Having lost most of these votes in recent years, they now seek to change the rules.

Card check is a haunting piece of legislation. It forces union representation through a simple-majority petition, not a secret ballot. This is why I prefer the acronym PLIAVA (or Parking Lot Intimidation and Violence Act). It is as undemocratic as any legislation before Congress in my lifetime. It is also a significant job killer, but that is a minor issue when compared to the basic tenets of democracy.

Many members of Congress have voted for the legislation, including Indiana’s junior senator. They did so with the full trust that card check would never become law. George Bush’s veto pen was their shield.

Though the legislation is wildly unpopular with voters, this risk-free support meant easy fund raising. A few, including said senator, are now feeling the ire from voters at having supported this legislation.

There can be no doubt the labor movement has done much that is good for Americans. But, if unions are going to survive in this century, they are going to have to spend more time wooing workers, and less on senators.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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