Good for unions, bad for Amer­ica

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bud­get is full of pro­pos­als that threaten to weaken our stag­ger­ing econ­omy. Higher taxes on high earn­ers and re­duced de­duc­tions for their char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tions and mort­gage in­ter­ests. A cap-and-trade sys­tem that will im­pose higher costs on every­one who uses elec­tric­ity. A na­tional health in­sur­ance pro­gram that will take $600 bil­lion or so out of the pri­vate-sec­tor econ­omy.

But the most griev­ous threat to fu­ture pros­per­ity may be off-bud­get — the in­aptly named Em­ployee Free Choice Act. Also known as card check, the leg­is­la­tion would ef­fec­tively abol­ish se­cret bal­lots in union­iza­tion elec­tions. It pro­vides that once a ma­jor­ity of em­ploy­ees had filled out sign-up cards cir­cu­lated by union or­ga­niz­ers, the em­ployer would have to rec­og­nize and bar­gain with the union. And if the two sides didn’t reach agree­ment in a short term, fed­eral ar­bi­tra­tors would im­pose one. Wages, fringe ben­e­fits and work rules would all be im­posed by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

It’s not dif­fi­cult to see why union leaders want this. Union mem­ber­ship has fallen from more than 30 per­cent of the pri­vate-sec­tor work­force in the 1950s to about 8 per­cent to­day. Union leaders would like to see that go up. So would most Demo­cratic politi­cians, since some por­tion of union dues — unions try to con­ceal how much — goes di­rectly or in­di­rectly to sup­port Demo­cratic candidates. The unions and the Democrats want to put up a toll­gate on as much of the pri­vate sec­tor as they can, to ex­tract money from con­sumers of goods and ser­vices.

They have al­ready set up such toll­gates on much of the pub­lic sec­tor. In the 1950s, very few pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers were union mem­bers. To­day, nearly half of all union mem­bers are pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ees. In many states and cen­tral cities — think Cal­i­for­nia and New York City — pub­lic-sec­tor unions chan­nel vast flows of money, all of it orig­i­nat­ing from tax­pay­ers, to them­selves and to Demo­cratic politi­cians. The unions use that money to pro­mote some pub­lic poli­cies that are not ob­vi­ously in the in­ter­ests of pub­lic-sec­tor em­ploy­ees — re­stric­tive trade reg­u­la­tions, for ex­am­ple, which ap­peal to nos­tal­gic union leaders who would like to see mil­lions of union­ized au­towork­ers and steelworkers once again.

In the pre­vi­ous Congress, the unions got the Demo­cratic House to pass the card check pro­posal and got ev­ery Demo­cratic se­na­tor not only to vote for it but to co-spon­sor it, as well. But the votes of all Democrats plus that of Penn­syl­va­nia Repub­li­can Arlen Specter were not enough then to over­come a Se­nate fil­i­buster. This year, there is lit­tle doubt that Speaker Nancy Pelosi could again jam card check through the House. But moderate Democrats from dis­tricts where unions are un­pop­u­lar have got­ten her to spare them a vote un­til and un­less the mea­sure gets through the Se­nate.

There, its prospects are not so good, now that there is no longer a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent to veto it. Card check sup­port­ers have a list of 15 Demo­cratic se­na­tors who have ex­pressed some man­ner of un­ease about the is­sue. Does Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lin­coln, up for re-elec­tion in 2010, re­ally want to pass a law strongly op­posed by her state’s big­gest busi­ness, Wal-Mart, long a tar­get of union or­ga­niz­ers? Do Demo­cratic se­na­tors from right-to-work states where em­ploy­ees can’t be re­quired to join unions want to go along?

As for Specter, union leaders have pub­licly said they’ll sup­port him if he backs card check. His pub­lic re­sponse has been to hail the im­por­tance of the se­cret bal­lot and the un­de­sir­abil­ity of manda­tory ar­bi­tra­tion.

Politi­cians can read num­bers. Poll­ster Scott Ras­mussen re­ported ear­lier this month that 61 per­cent of Amer­i­cans think it’s fair to re­quire a se­cret bal­lot vote if work­ers want a union. Only 18 per­cent dis­agree. Con­gres­sional Democrats used to be­lieve that them­selves — in the course of a trade de­bate in 2001, they urged that Mex­ico hold se­cret bal­lot union­iza­tion elec­tions.

Ras­mussen also re­ported an in­ter­est­ing dif­fer­ence be­tween cur­rent union mem­bers and non-mem­bers. Union mem­bers by a 47 per­cent to 18 per­cent mar­gin thought most work­ers want to join a la­bor union. But non-mem­bers be­lieve by a 56 per­cent to 14 per­cent mar­gin that most work­ers don’t.

Are non-union mem­bers de­luded? Why don’t they want the sup­pos­edly higher wages and job pro­tec­tions unions pur­port to give them? Maybe it’s be­cause the ad­ver­sar­ial union­ism pro­moted by the Wagner Act of 1935 is out of date. It made some sense when em­ploy­ers used time-and-mo­tion study to speed up as­sem­bly lines and squeeze the last quan­tum of en­ergy out of work­ers and could lay off work­ers at will.

But to­day’s em­ploy­ees have un­em­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion and are pro­tected by var­i­ous anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws. There is a whole raft of em­ploy­ment law that didn’t ex­ist in 1935, and cor­po­rate hu­man re­sources de­part­ments are dis­ci­plined by that law.

As the Detroit au­tomak­ers’ trou­bles show, the ad­ver­sar­ial work rules in­sisted on by the United Auto Work­ers — a rel­a­tively en­light­ened union in this area — made them un­able to com­pete in qual­ity or cost with for­eign au­tomak­ers who em­ploy co­op­er­a­tive man­age­ment tech­niques and treat their work­ers as in­tel­li­gent part­ners rather than as dumb an­i­mals, the way the time-and-mo­tion study man­agers did in the 1930s.

Card check would give co­er­cive union or­ga­niz­ers the chance to im­pose on large swaths of the pri­vate-sec­tor econ­omy the bur­dens the UAW im­posed on the Detroit au­tomak­ers. It would set up toll­gates to chan­nel the money of con­sumers as well as tax­pay­ers to the Demo­cratic Party. You can see how that would be good for union leaders and Democrats. But good for Amer­ica?

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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