This article was originally written for the United Progressives.
As a hard-working employee, would you not want the capacity to shape the conditions you work under? More pointedly, would you not want a workplace governed by institutions with some democratic qualities, especially qualities that include unionization elections free from intimidation and harassment? As an employee, you should be aware that there are powerful interests wanting to deny you democratic unionization elections so as to steal some of your wages for their own personal enrichment. Who are these perpetrators? The answer will not surprise you.
As one well-known analysis points out, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), more popularly referred to as card check, is an eminent threat to your wages and workplace democracy because it allows employees rather than employers to decide on whether or not to allow majority (50 percent) sign-up to go from the initial unionization petition to immediate unionization, thus potentially bypassing a secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). What’s so threatening about this, you might ask? Well, as the story goes, card check is actually backed by those intimidating and wildly violent union thugs bent on lining their own pockets and funding their mafia patrons with union dues, or your wages. These nefarious thugs are so willing to push card check since, without a secret ballot, it will make it easier for union conspirators to identify and discipline union pessimists among the working rank and file. It will make unionization more probably and, consequently make revenues from dues more lucrative sources of income for union thugs. In short order, the struggle over card check is part and parcel of the timeless American struggle between ordinary hard working folk and those repressive union criminals bent on profiting for doing nothing.
Amazingly, this analysis sells to so many people! The fact that the title and opening paragraphs sound like familiar anti-Union diatribes generally, or anti-EFCA diatribes particularly, speaks to the enormous success that business interests, most notably the Chamber of Commerce, has had in defining the stakes behind any attempts toward strengthening America’s unions and worker remuneration. To be sure, political action committees like The Employee Freedom Action Committee and Freedom’s Watch PAC, business associations like the Chamber of Commerce and Associated Builders and Contractors, and retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot, have pulled together a formidable network of financial and cultural resources to help ensure that the dominant framing of EFCA would be cast as a battle between decent hard-working laborers and repressive union bosses rather than a battle between employees trying to earn a reasonable living and employers wanting to maximize profits. Incredibly, this definition allows the Chamber of Commerce to stake out a position as a defender of the rights of workers against their nefarious would be union bosses. And who says reality for many is not a complete fabrication?
There is nothing more real than the reality that the struggle over EFCA is a plain and simple struggle between labor and capital. Recognizing this reality does not make you a Marxist anymore than driving a red car makes you a Maoist. There is also nothing more real than the fact that few things emanating from the Chamber, from its ridiculous position on Climate Change to its baseless scare tactics against EFCA, are actually true. For example, the argument that the EFCA will destroy the secret ballot is simply wrong. In no way does card check legislate away the secret ballot. Instead, pending legislation allows workers a choice of whether or not to have a majority sign up (card check) or an extended NLRB supervised election period. The problem with the current arrangement lies in the fact that it is the company which decides on the sign-up method. Most elect the latter method, which gives the companies the period of several weeks to intimidate and harass employees into not voting to unionize.
A correlated argument constantly paraded by the Chamber describes the EFCA as a threat to work place democracy. At this point, one must wonder on which side of the moon Chamber leaders live. If by democracy we mean freedom of choice, then card check is actually more democratic. Why? Since the legislation allows workers rather than managers to select the method (majority sign-up or ballot) for deciding whether or not to unionize, EFCA can remove the prolonged period between the initial petition and the election. This period is more often than not characterized by managers intimidating and, sometime firing those who are known to be union supporters. If employees decide to skip the secret ballot, it is because they want to bypass the completely undemocratic environment associated with those weeks prior to the NLRB supervised election. In other words, the biggest threat to the secret ballot are the managers and employers, whose hostility toward unions and union supports make EFCA the most efficacious and rational course of action for strengthening worker representation in the workplace.
Finally, nothing captures the contradictions and hypocrisy of the anti-EFCA logic more than the constant portrayal of union leaders as “corrupt thugs” bent on pushing EFCA as a means for extracting more membership dues for personal financial gain. To be sure, this imagery draws from a rich American cultural narrative that depicts unions as run by violent men involved with urban party machines and the mafia (think Tammany Hall, Richard Daley, Jimmy Hoffa, and the Teamsters). Of course, in some cases, this stereotype was not without a certain grain of truth. However, as widely cited in a 1963 study by Robert Doherty, the singular focus that American education has historically placed on the violence of the Molly Maguire riots or the Pullman strike, at the expense of a parallel focus on some of the more positive contributes made by labor, has done much to damage the image of unions. More recent work by David Witwer, a 2003 book entitled “Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union”, points to the fact that early in the 20th century, business leaders attacked growing labor power by leveling corruption and criminality charges on the doorstep of Union leaders, thus weakening the capacity of strikes to draw public sympathy.
Today, these stereotypes are still strongly reproduced in popular discourse, making the Chamber’s arguments an easy sell. For example, a study by researchers at the University of Chicago, entitled “Evidence of Class Anxiety in the Chicago Tribune Coverage of Organized Labor”, found that union coverage in the Tribute was overwhelmingly negative and tended to focus on issues like labor disputes and labor politics, rather than working conditions and union impacts.
While these depictions make for great bumper sticker phrases, they impart nothing characteristic to labor leadership. Think about the term "thug" for example, which describes a “thief” who resorts to “brutal” and “violent” means. By that definition I could readily include business executives who manage to sap every last penny out of the wages paid to workers in order to maximize profits for people who want 2 expensive cars, a 6 bedroom house, and a boat, while at the same time, workers go without access to health care.
The same line of argument can be made about the term “corrupt”, which describes practices that are ‘dishonest’ and ‘immoral’. Nearly any modern organization can be accused of this, and in some cases rightfully so. But, corruption can be more easily applied to the practices of business rather than labor. Witwer makes this point quite central to his analysis when he points out that, while the Teamsters certainly had notable problems of corruption, the level of corruption within the trucking industry itself is always left out of the narrative. Again, this bias is reproduced today. For example, the Chamber of Commerce is fond of citing the $400 million “labor racketeering fines and restitution” figure as evidence of union leaders plundering the “pensions and welfare benefits” of union members. However, a Semi-Annual Report to Congress Inspector General of the Labor Department actually cites that most of money racketeering was actually cases of businesses rather than unions ripping off workers. This says nothing of the broader and frequent instances of corporate tax evasion, bribery, and anti-trust violations made by company managers.
In fact, each of the charges commonly leveled against the Employee Free Choice Act and union leadership more appropriate captures the political position and actions of the Chamber of Commerce and its ‘cronies’. It is the Chamber’s willingness to continue to support current practices that allow managers to dominate the NLRB supervised vote that constitutes the single biggest threat to workplace democracy. It is also the perpetrations of the Chamber’s patrons that most appropriately fit into its own narrative of corrupt thugs wanting to extract as much from labor for personal material gain. In reality, it is this last point which constitutes the principle reality behind opposing the EFCA. It’s a reality characterized by a struggle between workers wanting livable remuneration on one hand, and employers want to maximize returns on the other hand. So don’t be fooled!