We have a report in this issue on the factors that lead workers to unionize: The Employee Free Choice Act, the so-called “card check” legislation, has passed the U.S. House of Representatives, but will not become law during the current Congressional session because the U.S. Senate has tabled it. They anticipate a better chance for EFCA’s enactment next year, after the November election.
The central initiative of EFCA is to “amend the National Labor Relations Act to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.” More plainly, it will change the process for union certification by eliminating the mandate for workers to vote in secret.
Opponents of EFCA have hit it hard on the premise that secret ballots are a fundamental principle of democracy, and that’s true. But, that criticism is irrelevant. Big Labor has little to do with democracy; unions exist to acquire and exert influence.
We live in a democracy, certainly, and it’s framed by the U.S. Constitution. Think of that document as an operating system in which many software applications function. Some of these applications allow users to establish and run businesses, according to their interests and skills. Other apps let users join unions or churches, or form clubs, and many more define individual users’ access privileges. While the hard drive is large and powerful, and there are some subordinate programs that fulfill many broader functions, none of the individual applications (businesses, unions) substitute for the operating system (democracy.)
Businesses may be frustrated and outraged that EFCA is subverting democracy by eliminating secret balloting, but that won’t invalidate Big Labor’s organizing efforts, and it won’t weaken support for EFCA’s passage. Unions are convinced they deserve this change, to restore “fairness” to the system after nearly two decades of declining union membership. And they have convinced many others, too.
Big Labor has been developing this new app for years. It pushed its own arguments (EFCA, of course, but also seeks to repeal states’ “right to work” laws) and it supported others’ initiatives (the Chinese Currency Act, the Patriot Corporation of America Act), always with an eye toward establishing a new program that makes it impossible for domestic business to run any application that’s not licensed and approved by Big Labor.
Big Labor pushed for these changes using all the standard techniques of American politics — buying, trading, exerting influence — and when they succeed they will have even more of it. In our democratic operating system, unions will comprise more than a single application; they will be a powerful new software developer influencing other platforms. They might even call themselves a “solutions provider.”
They have reason to be confident as they proceed. In the manufacturing sector, the United Autoworkers can claim to have “saved” Detroit’s Big Three by agreeing to transformative contracts in 2007. The United Steelworkers staked out new rhetorical and philosophical territory during a bitter strike at American Axle & Manufacturing this year — and gained sympathy in defeat. Recently, the USW forced U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal USA to choose between costly labor stability and a bitter strike that would disrupt those companies’ recordbreaking earnings. Labor won that battle.
The selling points for Big Labor’s new app include standard bits of class conflict (“fairness” “justice”) updated with elements that appeal to businesses’ quest for global stability and the general public’s vague, 21st Century anxieties (health care, globalization, financial security.)
And what will Labor 2.0 do for your operating system? Tighter, more expansive environmental and safety regulations. Higher wage and benefit costs. Wider implementation of tariffs and trade restrictions. All the development work has been done, and the rollout is underway.