Let’s start with three basic presumptions. The first presumption is an empirical observation: capitalism is predicated on the continuous expansion of consumption. If people are not making and selling more goods and services with every passing year, the economy will contract and employment will go down.
But as it turns out, shockingly, no one will make goods or produce services if there is no one willing and able to buy them. Stagnant purchasing power produces a stagnant economy.
The second and third presumptions are normative assumptions, both fairly minimal. The first is that other things being equal, it is a good thing when the average household earns more money and has more job security. The second is that it’s a good thing when work is sufficiently remunerative than it can lift a worker and his or her family out of poverty.
Why do I take time to state the seemingly obvious? Because the dominant fact about American economic life in the past 35 years—a time frame that (till now) has been dominated politically almost continuously by conservatives—is that wages and incomes have stagnated for ordinary people, even as the economy has continued to grow. That growth has been captured by the folks in the very top income and wealth brackets. People in the middle and below the middle have been left out.
Consider the numbers: Over the entire period from 1973 to 2006, the hourly wage of the average worker grew just 13%. At the same time, productivity of the average worker increased some 77%. American workers have been making more, but they haven’t been getting more. In fact, wages for the bottom 60% of male workers have actually declined in real terms since 1979.
What about benefits? 69% of workers received health insurance through their job in 1979; today the figure is 55%. 51% of all workers had a pension plan through their job in 1979; today the figure is 43%.
How did all this happen? The reasons are complex, but one big part of the answer is revealed by yet another fact: The number of American workers in unions fell from roughly 24% in 1979 to just over 12% today.
Here is an instance where Ronald Reagan delivered the goods: he crushed the air traffic controllers, then stopped enforcing labor law and turned a blind eye as employers became more aggressive in their union-busting activities.
Subsequently, it has become extraordinarily difficult to organize a union in the United States. The typical pattern is that employers hire professional union-busters; make a series of implicit and explicit threats to the jobs of workers seeking a union; often fire workers involved in organizing efforts, with little fear of real punishment (one study suggests that 20% of workers involved in organizing end up getting fired); compel workers to listen to anti-union propaganda during union campaigns; and engage in a variety of intimidation tactics.
That’s why the standard conservative line, faithfully parroted on local editorial pages, that the Employee Free Choice Act would somehow replace fair and free elections is little more than a sick joke. Current union ratification election procedures fail to meet even minimal standards of fairness and openness; as Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon puts it, “NLRB elections looks more like the discredited practices of rogue regimes abroad than anything we would call American.”
In fact, studies consistently show that many more Americans are interested in joining a union than actually belong to one—polling data from 2005 suggests that over half of workers would join a union if they could. The reason they can’t join one is that the deck is stacked against attempts to organize, at every turn.
The truth is that anti-union zealots don’t really care whether the will of workers is best honored under an election system, a card check system, or some other alternative. They just don’t like unions. And if one is a conservative there are good political reasons not to like unions—controlling for other factors, union members are more likely to be liberal than non-union members. Unions are one of the great engines of civic mobilization in this country, usually on behalf of progressive causes.
But conservatives usually don’t say that. Instead they argue that unions are bad for the economy and that union organizers and union members are self-interested.
It’s true that union workers make significantly higher wages than comparable non-union workers — a wage bonus of roughly 10-20%, with low-wage workers particularly likely to get a big boost. A union job is, other things equal, a better job than a non-union job: better pay, better benefits, better security. Better pay of course translates into more consumption, which as we already observed helps capitalism work much better.
But it’s not true that only union workers benefit from this wage boost. Higher union wages have a knock-on effect as even non-unionized employers operating in the same labor market as union employers are compelled to raise wages if they want to attract and retain workers. And, more generally, it’s good for the economy when employers concentrate on trying to achieve genuine efficiency gains (doing more for less) rather than simply slashing labor costs.
Finally, the decline in unions has removed an important check on management abuses. As Harvard economist Richard Freeman writes, “the decline of unionism should be associated with corporate excesses. Hello, Enron, AIG, Global Crossing…”
None of this is to say that unions are a cure-all for our economy or for working people’s economic prospects. Giving workers not just the ability to bargain for higher wages but to have an active say in management decisions—as in employee-owned firms—would bolster workers’ security and prospect more than simply trying to revive the postwar union model.
In the near term, however, the Employee Free Choice Act is necessary simply to restore to workers the effective right to organize and collectively bargain. And while the EFCA will likely have little noticeable effect on the economic recovery, over the long term an increase in union representation (especially in the service sector) should lead to more money going into worker’s pockets and wages keeping better pace with productivity growth than in recent decades. That would be good news for everyone.
Thad Williamson is an assistant professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. After growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., he earned his bachelor's degree at Brown University, a master's degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary (New York) and a doctorate in political science from Harvard University. He is the author of three books and has written on public affairs for numerous national publications.
People like choices. Whether it’s seven different kinds of ketchup (or is it catsup?),or hundreds of choices of television shows, cars, hair styles and clothes, choices are everywhere. Choices are good.
Taking that line of thinking, the political class, in conjunction with labor leaders, is all fired-up about offering non-unionized workers another choice. And this one is so good that they even call it the “Employee Free Choice Act.”
Who could possibly be against giving workers a choice?
Only skinflints and heartless capitalists could possibly be against giving workers the right to sign a card that says they want to unionize their workplace – free of any possibility of intimidation from the boss. And the best part is if a simple majority of workers sign such cards, the shop is unionized.
If things were only so simple.
“Card check,” as its opponents call it, isn’t quite the free-and-easy choice it appears. If anything, it muzzles the rights of some (employers) to the benefit of others (union organizers). Right now, if workers are interested in forming a union, there has to be an election. All sides – including those dreaded employers – are given the opportunity to make their case and then cast ballots on the matter. Secret ballots.
That’s important. Card check doesn’t allow for secret ballots or elections. Rather, the friendly union rep comes to you, places a card in your hand and awaits your decision. No possibility for intimidation there.
But let’s put a good face on things. Intimidation, peer pressure, whatever you wish to call it, may not occur. Workers exercise their choice, unionize and it’s over. The good times are here.
If only it was that simple.
Under this bill, once a union is in place, both sides have four months to hash-out a contract. If they can’t, the matter is turned over to binding arbitration…run by the federal government.
So onto the scene comes a gaggle of government arbitrators who may or may not have a clue about the business, the workers or the products they produce. Through arbitration, they can impose a binding, two year contract that no one – neither the companies nor the workers – can dispute.
So much for free choice.
But surely, some will say, this is all just bluff and nonsense to keep the working man down. Well, possibly. Some businesses have gone out of their way to alienate their workers and a card check law would act as a type of rough justice for their evil ways.
But let’s say you run a small business that values employees and tries to do good by them. One day, a nice union rep arrives on your doorstep and passes out cards to the staff. You, wondering what the heck this person is doing, try to ask question and maybe even get hot under the collar.
Well, now you’re in the soup. Under card check, you can be slapped with hefty penalties for such actions, plus the possibility that you can be fined for any past “violations” of workers’ rights. However, if the union organizer decides to play rough, there’s no penalty for them. At all.
So much for fair play.
It’s almost certain that card check will pass the House of Representatives. It is now less certain that it will pass the Senate. And there’s even been a bit of trimming on the matter in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.
Republican Bob McDonnell has come out swinging against the idea as a long-term job killer. The Democratic contenders for governor all seem to be less sure on the matter.
Terry McAuliffe says the issue “deserves a full debate in Congress because of its importance.”
Former Del. Brian J. Moran’s campaign mutters that it "sincerely hopes that Congress can work through their differences on this."
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds charts the widest possible course around the issue, stating that he’s all for "fair wages, job security and health care for Virginia's working families."
Maybe they are waiting for a cue from either Mark Warner or Jim Webb. Both Senators have been rather quite. If Warner, Webb or both decide to walk away from card check, then watch how fast the Democratic gubernatorial wannabes race to join them.
After all, which one of them wants to be depicted as being on the wrong side of Mark Warner in a campaign ad? Or worse, which one of them wants to cede the position of agreeing with Warner on an economic issue to Bob McDonnell?
Norman Leahy is vice president for public affairs at Tertium Quids, a statewide, free market advocacy organization. He is a contributor to several Virginia political blogs, including Bacon's Rebellion, Sic Semper Tyrannis, Bearing Drift and NBC 12's Decision Virginia. A 2006 graduate of the Sorensen Institute, Norman and his family live in Henrico County.