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Marketplace Scratch Pad

The battle over union votes

Scott Jagow Jul 7, 2009

In news publications all over the country, I’ve noticed a lot of copy devoted to the Employee Free Choice Act, which is back on the table after being killed a couple years ago. Congress has a great deal on its plate between energy, health care and financial regulation, but this union organizing issue may not take a back seat.

The EFCA would let workers decide how they vote on whether to join a union. Right now, employers can determine whether workers must hold a “secret ballot” election or vote by signing cards. The law would also increase penalties against employers that break labor laws.

Here are some of the arguments. From Carl Buch, Buch Construction, Laurel, Maryland in the Culpeper, Virginia newspaper:

Workers aren’t looking for handouts. They just want an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. I’m not sure how we got to a place where giving employees the opportunity to bargain for their fair share is no longer respected. Instead, I hope we’ve learned that when CEOs, large corporations, stockholders and profits take preference over everything else, we all lose — business owners and their employees alike.

It’s time to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and restore fairness to our economy.

In the Chicago Tribune, business owner Marty Halm argues the other side:

As the owner of a small paving company in La Grange, I oppose the bill. I’ve seen for myself how unions squander their members’ dues while trying to unionize fair-paying businesses that faithfully provide goods and services to the public.

Eliminating the voice of the employer, and the employee in some circumstances, seems like an odd way to go about giving workers a direct path to form unions. Toughening penalties against employers who break the law sounds fair, except the bill would not toughen penalties against unions that break the law.

Kevin Kelly, a former business journalist who is now the CEO of Emerald Packaging in Union City, California, writes in Newsweek that he, like other business owners, doesn’t “want a union coming between us and our employees. We worry that a union might attempt to drive up wages higher than we can afford, or foist a health care plan on us more expensive than our thin margins can handle.”

But then he writes the following, which seems to make the case that unions have an impact:

The mere thought of new labor law has inspired some companies to react. One business in my city has started to pay more attention to employee communication, publishing a monthly newsletter and holding meetings with shifts to explain how the company is doing. “We hope by opening lines of communication that folks will feel better about the company,” the owner told me. “And, of course, less likely to embrace a union.” Another business owner has gone so far to hire a firm to conduct an employee survey so he can identify and resolve any festering problems. Another, a local printer, has quietly begun moving more work to their Mexican facility.

Jack McKay, president of the Eastern Maine Labor Council, writes in the Bangor Daily News:

Under the current system, too often management-labor cooperation has been interpreted as “do as you are told.” The idea that a workplace should be democratic has been shunned by the notion that CEOs are entitled to do as they please. When you clock in, you leave your right to the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, even the freedom from search and seizure at the door. If you don’t have the protection of a contract, you are an at-will employee, which means you can be fired for virtually any reason — or even for no reason at all.

Workplace democracy isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t anti-business. It is commonsense. Workers are entitled to have a say on the job, and the most common means of doing that is through unions.

There are also entire websites devoted to this issue. The Truth About the Employee Free Choice Act site lays out the arguments against the measure, while this website is asking people to join the fight for the EFCA.

Where do you stand on this one?

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