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Tilting at Windmills

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October 20, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CARD CHECKS....If you run a union and you want to organize a new site a Wal-Mart store, let's say how do you do it? That is, what's the technical mechanism for getting legal recognition of your union?

Choice A is a secret ballot (aka an "NLRB election"). The prospective union campaigns for recognition, management campaigns against them, and eventually there's a secret vote. If the union gets a majority of the vote, they win recognition.

Choice B is what's known as a "card check." Both sides campaign as before, but there isn't the frenzy associated with a single election day. Instead, the union works on getting a majority of the workers to sign cards authorizing a union, and when they manage to collect cards from a majority of workers they petition to be recognized as the collective bargaining unit for the site.

So which is better? The business community prefers secret ballots because it gives them more control over the process and results in fewer union recognitions. Unions prefer card checks for the opposite reason. Both processes are used frequently in other contexts and neither one violates any fundamental principles of fairness. So which is better?

Basically, the answer is that you want a process that best reflects the actual wishes of the workers by allowing them to make an honest choice free of coercion. Theory won't help much here, so this boils down to an empirical question: which process, in practice, produces less worker coercion from both management and organized labor? Ezra Klein reports the results of a recent survey:

During the NLRB election, 46% of workers complained of management pressure. During card check elections, 14% complained of union pressure. Workers in NLRB elections were twice as likely as workers in card check elections to report that management coerced them to oppose (it's worth noting that in card-check elections, 23% of workers complained of management coercion more than complained of union coercion). Workers in NLRB elections were more than 53% as likely to report that management threatened to eliminate their jobs.

The survey, commissioned by American Rights at Work (a pro-labor group) and conducted by two professors at Rutgers University and Jesuit Wheeling University, is here.

It's impossible to devise a process that eliminates coercion entirely. But the evidence in favor of card checks is twofold: first of all, it turns out that card checks result in less overall coercion than NLRB elections. Second, management coercion is fundamentally more oppressive than labor coercion anyway, since management has the power to fire election coordinators, threaten to shut down plants, bribe workers, etc. and research suggests they do all these things in startling amounts. In recent decades, management coercion has simply been a much more serious problem than labor coercion.

The business community prefers NLRB elections because NLRB rules are stacked in their favor and NLRB elections provide them with far more leverage to coerce workers into rejecting union representation. Card checks don't eliminate coercion from either side, but they do reduce it dramatically. It's a fundamentally fairer system for workers and, it turns out, a far less contentious and hostile process for both sides. Federal rules recognizing card checks ought to be a Democratic priority if they win control of Congress in November.

Kevin Drum 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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Er ... why couldn't the card checks also be anonymous?

Posted by: Amitava Mazumdar on October 20, 2006 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

How exactly does one collect anonymous signatures, Amitava?

Posted by: ajl on October 20, 2006 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

Amitava: I suppose they could be in theory, but you have to hand over your card to somebody, and that somebody is a union rep since they're the ones collecting them. If Congress wanted to set up rules so that there was some neutral collection point, they could probably do that, though it would require funding of some kind.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on October 20, 2006 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

The business community prefers secret ballots because it gives them more control over the process and results in fewer union recognitions.

Which is a good thing because unions are a bad thing. Unions take advantage of their members by stealing money from them through union dues while giving back nothing in return. Unions hurt customers by giving them bad service while preventing the bad workers from being fired.

Unions cause businesses to close down by forcing them to hire more workers at higher pay, but the business is worse off because the workers work less hours. This causes businesses to close down causing higher unemployment. Secret ballots are the best way to create unions because it will mean there are less unions and then workers will be better off without the corrupt unions.

Posted by: Al on October 20, 2006 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, liberals advocating the elimination of secret ballots.

Why not try proposing solutions to the coercion used by both sides (and, no, I am not believing the self-serving survey results- unions want card-check because they have more success in winning)?

I think having an election take place over a longer period than a day is perfectly OK, but having someone have to reveal how he voted as part of the process is unacceptable.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on October 20, 2006 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

Card check is the way to go. I say let Wal-Mart do whatever they want, as long as Taft-Hartley is repealed and card check is in force-The Walton heirs will be in for a very rude awakening.

Posted by: CDWard on October 20, 2006 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

Unions are necessary to force big business to share the outrageous profits (ala WalMart) with the employees who actually make them on behalf of the company. How criminally unconscionable that WalMart forces me to provide healthcare for their employees by forcing them onto the public dole.

Posted by: Merg on October 20, 2006 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

"We would be closing our eyes to obvious difficulties, of course, if we did not recognize that there have been abuses, primarily arising out of misrepresentations by union organizers as to whether the effect of signing a card was to designate the union to represent the employee for collective bargaining purposes or merely to authorize it to seek an election to determine that issue." (NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., Supreme Court of the United States, 1969)

Opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren

Posted by: Louis Mahern on October 20, 2006 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

Sevret ballots are good for elections, why not for everything?

Posted by: joe on October 20, 2006 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

I think a fairer system would be to have cup checks on management.

If they pass, then no union.

Posted by: craigie on October 20, 2006 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

It seems that one way to AVOID the issue the Warren quote raises would be to eliminate the ambiguity about card checks -- which a move from secret ballots to card check elections would seem to entail.

Posted by: Pontifex on October 20, 2006 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

Hey Kevin,
Here's one problem with both of these methods, which I have unfortunately experienced. When Columbia University grad students held a secret ballot to get union representation a few years back, the university administration simply seized the ballot boxes and had them destroyed. When we did a card count (a year and a half later or so), and had our majority certified by the attorney general and leaders in the state legislature, Columbia just ignored it, arguing in court that we grad students (who get paid by the university to do all the loathsome shit professors don't want to do, and for which the university doesn't want to pay them) don't do work since we are not workers but rather apprentices. I really wish more bloggers out there had been following this and similar stories at the time (NYU's grad student union got busted earlier this year) because now all that organizing momentum has been lost.

Posted by: middy on October 20, 2006 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, liberals advocating the elimination of secret ballots.

Wow, loony libertarian Yancey Ward with another dishonest post.

Why not try proposing solutions to the coercion used by both sides

In case you're just completely ignorant, Yancey, solutions to the ongoing and, you know, actual coercion by business have failed to get through the labor-unfriendly NLRB.

And by the way, my lying friend, in an earlier thread you accused me of dishonesty, yet you were silent at my challenge to produce an example (I've cited your dishoensty, of course, often enough).

If you don't like being called dishonest, Yancey, you might try being honest.


Posted by: Gregory on October 20, 2006 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Here, here!

I'd also point out that coercive activity can be reduced if sufficient incentives are created to dissuade individuals and organizations from engagining in it. The fines for employers who violate labor law are paltry; if employers were paying $10 million per violation, plus losing the right to compete for public contracts, coercive behaviour would decline rapidly.

Posted by: Rich C on October 20, 2006 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

I will expect card checks to be outlawed ASAP.

Posted by: Hostile on October 20, 2006 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Card check is a reasonable way to join a union. You sign cards to indicate your membership for any number of things - churches, baseball leagues, what have you - so why not a union as well?

Unions these days, from what I understand, have fairly good standards for card collection processes. Card signings are witnessed by a second organizer, and the time and place of the card signings is written on the card. These kinds of practices can steeply decrease the possibility of coersion.

Still, NLRB elections would be reasonable if Congress added concrete measures to enforce them: say, a 30-day period between the day the election is declared and when the election is held (with a maximum of 90 days to allow for challenges), or something similar; and large punitive damages (in addition to back pay) to companies which participate in coercion.

Posted by: Shai on October 20, 2006 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK


As I have noted at least once before, you continuously behave like an infant (and that is a bit of an insult to infants, but so be it). The above comment is ample evidence of that. In any case I will return to my normal practice of simply not reading your nasty but otherwise empty comments.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on October 20, 2006 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

The raison d'etre of labor unions is antagonism between management and labor. Go to any dinosaur facility dominated by labor bureaucrats - the NYC public transit system, GM/Ford, etc. - and any fair minded person will realize this is not the model for a productive enterprise or economy to follow. They served a useful purpose in the past, but it's time to take the training wheels off and develop other institutions to advance the policies/interests you want addressed.
As to cards versus Diebold voting machines, of course I support Diebold. Have you ever had a college classmate ask you to write a recommendation letter for him? Ever felt a teensy bit of pressure to put something down you weren't comfortable with? Imagine a workplace where a clique of blowhards are running around demanding/requesting you sign their cards in front of them, and tell me which is more coercive.

Posted by: minion of rove on October 20, 2006 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

liberals advocating the elimination of secret ballots

It's moderates advocating the elimination of employer coercion.

Anyone who has been in management knows corporations expend more money trying to prevent unions from organizing than they do ensuring their employees are compensated according to the value they add.

Posted by: Hostile on October 20, 2006 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps Kevin can explain how giving people money or other things they desire is a form of coercion. If that's the case, Kevin, feel free to coerce me; I'll set up a Paypal account. Coerce away!

Posted by: Will Allen on October 20, 2006 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK

Conan O'Brian the other day on WalMart (I'm paraphrasing from memory):

>>>Did you hear the news that WalMart has worked out an agreement with the communist Chinese government to expand the number of their stores in that country?

Yeah...when asked about how they could justify working closely with such an secretive and tyrannical system, which persists in denying the most basic of rights to the people they oppress, the leader of China said "Oh, I don't know, WalMart really isn't that bad."

Posted by: smintheus on October 20, 2006 at 5:19 PM | PERMALINK

Local union officials visit workers at a 'target' worksite, and hand out voting cards. Once collected, they present them to the NLRB for qualification. If the worksite qualifies (high enough percentage of 'yes' cards), then its the NLRB that holds the secret ballot.

Kevin, are you proposing that the DFL votes to institute 'card checks' by the NLRB?

Posted by: wishIwuz2 on October 20, 2006 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK


Cooperation and Coercion as Methods of Social Change.

The author was my father's father.

I never met him (he died before I was conceived), but his presence can be sensed in this pamphlet.

Lately, we have forgotten how to cooperate.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on October 20, 2006 at 5:45 PM | PERMALINK

I'm genuinely confused here. How are secret, government-board-reivewed ballots (the standard process for any election) where neither side (union or company) can see how each individual votes... why is this considered more open to manipulation or intimidation? And really, why are secret ballots being considered a bad thing now? That's always been a safeguard of the democratic process.

Posted by: jbryan on October 20, 2006 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

My dad went to work for the New York Central Railroad in 1925 as a Railway Clerk, He was 16, had to drop out of high school because his dad had just died and there were four younger brothers. He was the eldest of those still at home.

He always said that the card check thing was the strength, but that he and his fellow clerks had always seen the card check as an opportunity to express strength on their own. They got the cards in their possession; carried them with themselves all the time, (or kept them in their lockers), signed, but not yet turned in to the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks.

They got quite a bit of mileage and control in the situation for months, even years, by simply pulling them out and waving them in the air when a supervisor or yardmaster was acting like a goon.

Makes me nostalgic for the days when independent thinkers had the moxie to recognize that they had power in the mere threat of organizing, and used it for as long as it was useful, without actually jumping into the union certification process--which eventually meant paying dues and having to be under union discipline.

It's not exactly "solidarity forever" but it has a terrifically appealing sense of how young workers played both sides of the street to advance their personal well-being.

Posted by: jimboman on October 20, 2006 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

It's Wheeling Jesuit University, not Jesuit Wheeling University. In Wheeling, WV.

Posted by: Mudge on October 20, 2006 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: are you going to run through the CA ballot, propositions and initiatives, PLEASE (!).

Many thanks.

Posted by: rad on October 20, 2006 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: kaojirtmvf on October 20, 2006 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

Al, shockingly, does a very good job of identifying some of the very real problems with Organized Labour Unions. I know this, because I am a shop steward for the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and I have seen all of this (and more) happen.

But as usual, Al views the situation through the warped lenses of his Corporate Capitalist goggles, and fails to see that even though unions can cause all these problems, and more besides, they are still preferable for workers. Why, you ask? Simply because typical management and business owners are too stupid, selfish, and short-sighted to simply treat their workers decently and pay them fairly.

Unions do not sucessfully organize in companies where workers are well-treated. Workers are not stupid, they don't want the expense and problems of unionization unless they are already being mistreated.

I leave you with the paragraph that pissed me off:

Which is a good thing because unions are a bad thing. Unions take advantage of their members by stealing money from them through union dues while giving back nothing in return. Unions hurt customers by giving them bad service while preventing the bad workers from being fired.

Posted by: Al on October 20, 2006 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

Posted by: charles parr on October 20, 2006 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

A couple of commenters have hinted at this, but I'd like to ask directly: Isn't there a difference between "coercion" during a secret ballot where it's unlikely that the coercing party will every know how you've voted, and coercion that is ongoing and enforceable because one's decision to sign or not to sign is (presumably) known to both management and labor? It would seem elementary to me that the two forms of coercion are very different, and to say that management coercion in the former is much higher than labor coercion in the latter is, well, not at all indicative of which method produces results more reflective of employee sentiment. Furthermore, why give only the level of management coercion for the former and union coercion for the latter? I would think that both forms of coercion would be relevant for both methods of voting.

Absent some reasonable explanation for why these forms of coercion are not different by their very nature, I'm convinced that Kevin's concern re methodology is more driven by results than any interest in fairness.

Posted by: Richard on October 20, 2006 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

I'm reading lots of strong opinions, but not much accurate information in the above comments. I'll try to offer more of the latter:

1. Whatever the biases of the politically-appointed NLRB board members may be, the regular staff are government employees who do a good job of following the letter and spirit of the NLRA.

2. Unions usually organize quietly, so that they can get lots of authorization cards signed before management is even aware they're around. Although they only need cards from 30% of bargaining unit employees to petition for an election, they don't usually file until they have 60% or more, since there is often attrition in support. Typically, there are some employees who feel coerced by union organizers and/or other employees to sign cards and who do not vote for the union in secret ballot elections.

3. There's usually 60 days for the two sides to "campaign" before an election. If either side violates NLRB regulations, the other can file an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint. ULPs are investigated, and can result in judgments, elections being postponed, or results being set aside.

4. Secret ballot elections have been the primary method for employees to decide whether or not they want to be represented by unions, but occasionally unions have presented authorization cards to management and management has accepted them in lieu of an election.

5. Unions would like to replace secret ballot elections with card checks because this method increases their chances of winning and reduces their expenses. Employees who are seeking union representation favor card checks, but those who are undecided usually favor secret ballot elections, since they benefit from what they learn in the campaign and their decisions for or against the union remain confidential.


Posted by: Blix on October 20, 2006 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK


It's impossible to devise a process that eliminates coercion entirely.

But it's very easy to devise one that doesn't involve every worker going on record in front of the pro-unionizing folks as either pro- or anti-union. If there's something intimidating about one "election day," hold it over the course of a month. Let every worker pick a numbered ticket out of a bowl, provide a secure slotted box in which the tickets, marked "yea" or "nay," can be deposited, wait a month, and count 'em, making sure that there are not duplicate numbers or any other signs of forgery. The number of tickets issued is a fair upper bound on the number of valid votes.

I really cannot imagine any reason for a non-secret ballot other than the possibility of coercion.

Posted by: waterfowl on October 20, 2006 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

Since the NLRB has recently ruled that most workers are potentially part of management and thus ineligible for union representation, this is in danger of becoming a moot point.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on October 20, 2006 at 9:08 PM | PERMALINK

Last year the NLRB found that more then 15,000 workers faced initimidation employers for their pro-union activities. Unfortunately, the NLRA does not have any effective remedies to prevent employers from intimidating their employers during secret ballot elections. This is becuase the penalties for intimidation are minimal (Employers don't even have to pay fines if they fire pro-union workers). Furthermore, employers will often appeal cases where they are founding guilty of intimidation, this means that workers who are fired for their union activity can be unemployed for several years.

One example of how the NLRB secret ballot election process back fires on workers is the case of Smithfield Packing. Where the employer built jail cells on its property and locked up the pro-union employees other than those that they simply didn't fire. Smithfield packing was found guilty of intimidation but appealed the case. Smithfield packing also put pro-union employers in job classifications with the highest rate of injury and stripped the facility of all but the bare minimum of safety equipment, resulting in much higher rates of injury for pro-union workers.

The NLRB found Smithfield Packing guilty of initimidation but the company appealed and the case dragged on for five years. After the case was finally settled most of the pro-union employees had simply left the company or had been fired and the union had given up on organizing the packing plant.

Posted by: veganpete2 on October 20, 2006 at 9:54 PM | PERMALINK

Another example of the failure of secret ballot election is the case of the Santa Fe casino in Las Vegas. In this case the employees voted for the union through a secret ballot election. The employer didn't recognize the union and appealed the election. This appeals dragged on for several years. Eventually, the employer exhausted its appeals and judge forced to recognize the union. However, still the employer refused to bargain with the union in good faith. The union sued the employer for bargaining in bad faith and after several more years had passed while the employer again exhausted its appeals a judge ruled in favor of the union. Then instead of bargaining with the union, the employer merged with another company and fired 51% of the workers in the casino. As a result the employer withdrew its recognition of the union, and tried to force another election. During this period the employer also engaged in a variety of other anti-union activities such as interogating and firing pro-union employees. A private security guard company hired by the casino company was even found guilty of attacking pro-union employees of the company as they left union meetings.

This all happened within the past fifteen years and is an example of why the current NLRB process is completely broken.

Posted by: veganpete2 on October 20, 2006 at 10:08 PM | PERMALINK

When I was in college I used work as a dietary aid in a nursing home in Pittsburgh. When a group of employees at my hospital contacted SEIU to try to join the union, management interrogated most of the employees in my department one-on-one to find who the pro-union employees were. Many of the pro-union employees then had their hours cut or were given less favorable shifts. A few of people who originally contacted the union were simply fired. This created a lot fear in the workplace, becuase many of my co-workers who otherwise supportive of the union were concerned about losing their job or their full-time status. I certainly couldn't afford to lose my job, which was helping me to support myself while in school. As a result the union drive fizzled out. As far as I know, my co-workers who lost their jobs or had their hours cut were never compensated for their loses. This is just my experience with the union election process.

Posted by: phgov on October 20, 2006 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

Yancey Ward wrote: As I have noted at least once before, you continuously behave like an infant (and that is a bit of an insult to infants, but so be it). The above comment is ample evidence of that. In any case I will return to my normal practice of simply not reading your nasty but otherwise empty comments.

It won't do, Yancey.

I'm fine with you calling me an infant...it's always amusing to see someone so smug in his superiority reduced to name-calling when unable refute arguments against his positions (or calling them "empty comment" to avoid addressing them).

But in the other thread, you went further -- you accused me of dishonesty.

I challenged you -- twice! -- for specifics, and this is all you come up with? It won't do.

When I point out your dishoensty, I'm specific. I'll be specific now. You made a charge, a fairly heinous charge, that you can't back up.

We can conclude that you're a liar, Yancey. Rest assured that "empty" or "nasty" as it may be. I won't hesitate to remind the forums of your dishonesty (as I said before, if you don't like being called dishonest, you could try honesty, but evidently you choose not to, so too bad).

I suspect that you'll get ignored a lot more, and by people whose opinion matters a lot more than a liar like you.

Posted by: Gregory on October 20, 2006 at 10:21 PM | PERMALINK

Comparing card check and secret ballot elections that have occured in the US is not a reasonable way of determining which certification method is more prone to coersion, since the only way to get a card check in the US is to have the employer agree to it. But if the employer agrees to card check, the employer is basically saying it doesn't mind a union (otherwise the employer would insist on a secret ballot). So why should these employers who agree to card checks then turn around and coerse workers? Or why should unions who already got an employer who isn't resisting unionization employ a lot of coersion?

This is the standard sample selection problem for statistical inference.

Posted by: stefan on October 20, 2006 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

See also

When good bloggers fall for bad statistical method

for an elaboration of the above argument.

Posted by: stefan on October 20, 2006 at 11:10 PM | PERMALINK


I am not sure if this completely answers your question, but in most cases employers only agree to card-check after an extended union organizing and pressure campaign where workers face a lot of employer intimidation. Good examples of this are the Beverly Nursing Home case in Pennsylvania or the Yale Medical Center case. Unions want to avoid the intimidation that takes place during this phase of card-check campaigns by changing the law so that employers have to recognize the union once a majority of workers are signed up on cards.

Posted by: veganpete2 on October 20, 2006 at 11:18 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: sdfa on October 20, 2006 at 11:25 PM | PERMALINK


thanks for the comment, but I don't quite see what you're trying to argue. Yes, some firms agree to card check after long periods of resistance, after receiving pressure from many quarters. This can lead to two effects:

1) some firms consenting to card check nevertheless still oppose unionizationization and will engenge in coersion. These are presumably why some workers report employer coersion in card check certification.

2) Firms that agree to card check due to pressure may, even though they oppose unionization, be deterred from coersion against workers by the same sort of pressure.

My point was that in general it is very likely that card check certification, once it gets to card check, is less likely to be as contested as secret ballot certification, and that lower levels of coersion from both employer and fellow workers are to be expected in less contested certifications. Firms that are aggressively anti-union and coerse unions do not consent to card check.

Hence the survey data above isn't very convincing support for Drum's point.

Again, thanks.

Posted by: stefan on October 20, 2006 at 11:31 PM | PERMALINK

Critics of organizing through card-check are concerned with initimdation on the part of pro-union workers and union staff, not intimidation on the part of management. Therefore, when talking about organizing through card-check I assume Kevin Drum is refering to intimidation originating from the union and its supporters rather than management. I hope this clears things up. I am actually suppossed to be working right now. So I can't really put to much time into thinking through these points thoroughly.

Posted by: veganpete2 on October 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM | PERMALINK


yes and no. Drum claims that card check leads to less intimidation by both unions and employers. I am addressing both these. And I don't see what you are trying to argue by claiming that "in most cases employers only agree to card-check after an extended union organizing and pressure campaign where workers face a lot of employer intimidation."

Posted by: stefan on October 21, 2006 at 12:22 AM | PERMALINK


I feel sorry for you; the contortions you must force upon yourself to appear to present this issue objectively but in reality being absurdly subjective must be exhausting. Business wants secret ballots, YES, because it will mean fewer union sites, BECAUSE, it will reflect workers wishes. Businesses don't want to "control" the process (this term you use is close to a lie and is at least deceitful) via secret ballots - far from it. They want to quietly benefit so that UNCOERCED WORKERS CAN CONTROL THE PROCESS, i.e., by voting without pressure.

But, sir, thanks for nicely in your Orwellian way confirming the Democrats as Fascist motif of yours; make sure to bring your best bat to the next union meeting to help your colleagues beat to the point of maiming anyone who thinks that a union at some particular site might not be particularly in their best interest. Oh, and good luck with the same idea for political elections; then you can beat Republicans instead of just keying their bumperstickered cars or deflating the tires in the electioneering vans; I guess just hope your opponents don't to decide to refrain from using their more vast economic resources to bring guns should your non-secret national ballots win the day as you would have the union membership ballots win the day.

Side note: union membership is declining in the USA because they are bad at what they do; they are bad for workers, for the unemployed, for the economy, and for consumers.


PS Admitted arrogance here admitted, but, tsssss . . . You know, if you were capable of skilled agitprop, it might be different; but this is hack-work; you should apologize - not to me, but to those for whom you seek to advocate.

Posted by: The Objective Historian on October 21, 2006 at 12:43 AM | PERMALINK


When we did a card count (a year and a half later or so), and had our majority certified by the attorney general and leaders in the state legislature, Columbia just ignored it, arguing in court that we grad students (who get paid by the university to do all the loathsome shit professors don't want to do, and for which the university doesn't want to pay them) don't do work since we are not workers but rather apprentices.

Speaking as a grad student, I agree with the Columbia administration here. Personally, I think it's ridiculous that someone being paid to get a PhD is in the same category as, say, a factory worker. However, I'm a science grad student, and our perspective tends to be completely different.

I was an undergrad/employee at Yale from 1998-2003, during which time the graduate union (GESO) was constantly harassing students in the sciences for support. These tactics included visits at home, inviting recalcitrant students for coffee and double-teaming them with GESO members, bothering them in lab, and generally refusing to take "no" for an answer. This was going on for years, and there were repeated instances of students signing union cards just to get the GESO reps to fuck off. GESO's consistent position was that a card count should be the standard for union recognition; had the university agreed to this, there would have been near-constant harassment of objecting students.

[ My personal favorite moment was when GESO filed complaints with the NLRB against several professors who'd lost their temper after seeing their students harassed and told the union reps to leave. ]

By the time I left, the union had pissed off so many people that a counter-organization had started, and grad students down the hall from me - on their own initiative - started posting anti-union signs and encouraging other students to vote "no" in a staged "election" put on for show. The union proposal was defeated solidly; this was a nonbinding election that the university administration ignored and didn't bother to campaign against. Afterwards, GESO switched to trying to unionize only the humanities and social sciences, and referred to the hard sciences as a "separate bargaining unit."

I'm a grad student at Berkeley now, where there's been a union for years. Union membership among science students appears to be minimal; it's widely regarded as a joke, especially thanks to some bizarre behavior by a union rep several years ago. I certainly wouldn't claim that this type of coercion is typical of all unions, and my experiences are about as far as possible from the working class, but as far as potential for coercion is concerned, I'm skeptical that a card-count is any fairer than an election.

Posted by: Nat Echols on October 21, 2006 at 2:09 AM | PERMALINK

Nat - A science grad student will spend roughly five years in a PhD program whereas a social science grad student will spend eight. Science grad students get paid to conduct research, history grad students get paid to teach section and grade exams. During the job search both types of grad students will be judged on the quality and quanity of their research. Yet, only the science grad students are focused solely on their research. If my only obligation was to research and write my dissertation I would agree with you about unions. However, I spend a good twenty hours a week preparing for and teaching section, grading papers and meeting with students in office hours. In at least some capacity I am an employee of the university.
(I will stipulate that science grad students spend at least some time assisting undergrads learning various techniques and methods and considerably more time contributing to other's papers.)

Posted by: TA on October 21, 2006 at 4:00 AM | PERMALINK

"I spend a good twenty hours a week preparing for and teaching section, grading papers and meeting with students in office hours"

Sounds like supervision and performance assessment. You are clearly a supervisor and should absolutely not qualify for any union.

However, these "Science grad students" sound like they're generally doing the bidding of their employers and oversee no one. If it wasn't for the fact that they were in an education program and don't pay a FICA tax, I'd guess they qualified for a union. As it stands, what are the union going to do anyway? Negotiate their homework assignments?

Posted by: Al on October 21, 2006 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

"it turns out that card checks result in less overall coercion ..."

That that study "turned out" very nicely, didn't it? Sponsored by some left-wing group and conducted by two professors. And who could ever guess what political leanings these profs have? I refuse to believe you're THAT gullible, Drummer. Please.

A secret ballot is a SECRET ballot. What part of that don't you understand? How can you, personally, be intimidated if you're voting in secret?

In an election, all parties try to point out the benefits of voting their way and the downside of voting the opposing side's way. That is not intimidation.

Posted by: cecce on October 21, 2006 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin: thanks for giving profile to this issue, which is one of the most pressing concerns for anyone interested in reviving unions today.

For an interesting comparison of how unlike "free and fair" elections NLRB elections atually are, take a look at an essay by Gordon Lafer, of the University of Oregon:


Imagine if some non-party to the election (lets say, a foreign government, the FBI, or what have you) had the power to take voters into a room and threaten them with losing their job if they campaigned for their candidate, accepted the candidate's literature or attended the candidate's meetings?

Imagine if the same non-party denied a candidate's campaign workers access to voters, by say, prohibiting them from talking to them or distributing literature?

Imagine if this non-party was secretly funding one of the candidates in the election, and that there was absolutely no obligation for candidates to declare their sources of financial aid?

Imagine if a non-party to the election could delay election day to a date that suits them?

It goes without saying that even if a true interested party (such as one of the candidates) in the election did any of these things, the election's fairness would be seriously compromised!

Yet each of these practices is allowed in NLRB elections.

Finally, imgaine if a non-party (or a candidate) were found guilty of violating election laws, but faced virtually no punishment?

Lafer makes the point that basically the only similarity between NLRB elections and any recognizable "free and fair" standard is that both employ secret ballots. Well, so do many authoritarian governments!

Lets get things straight: if NLRB election process were truly "free and fair" there'd be little call for card check.

And if you would feel more comfortable knowing that ultimately a secret process occurs that helps ensure a true test of employees' preferences, bring in the American Arbitration Association or some other independent agency, and have them supervise a confidential "card signing" ceremony.

Unions are confident that they would triumph in any process truly approaching a recognizable standard of "free and fair".

Posted by: Friend of Labor on October 21, 2006 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

The above examples of employer coercion during union organizing, even if accurate, do not warrant replacing secret ballot elections with card checks. They just warrant strengthening penalties for unfair labor practices. There have been egregious violations of voter rights in political elections of late, but I haven't heard any demands from victims that we throw out secret ballot elections. They just want their rights enforced against those who try to deny them a vote.


Posted by: Blix on October 21, 2006 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

Is there a period of time that workers have to sign cardcheck? Because generally I think it's better but if say people can sign cards and like two years later the union gets enough that seems problematic.

Posted by: MNPundit on October 21, 2006 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

A coerced representation card is worse than useless to a union organizer. In an organizing campaign, the organizer rates each of the members by level of commitment. Weak and moderate supporters are counted with the non-supporters. Only the strong supporters are counted when deciding to present the cards for an NLRB election or card-check representation. Organizer sent by the union know this, and look for real commitment before they ask someone to sign a card. However, most cards are given out by local workers on the organizing committee, and their efforts at persuasion may at times be perceived as coercion, and may in fact be coercion.

Part of the staff organizers job is to observe and guide the local organizers, so that contacts result in solid support and a positive view of the union. Heavy-handed techniques backfire, and derail organizing campaigns. Unions do not have the resources to waste on failed campaigns.

Even though the NLRA only requires 30% to schedule an election, most unions won't go for an election unless they have cards for 65%. In a recognition campaign (card-check), you want cards for at least 75-80%. The company management , seeing overwhelming support for the union, may decide that recognition may spare the expense and disruption of an election campaign, and will allow contract negotiation to start out on a less adversarial basis.

For unions, coercion is an ineffective tactic. Coerced workers are likely to go to management and complain, which can tip off management to an organizing campaign in its early most vulnerable stage. Management can use such complaints to good effect in their anti-union efforts, and will likely cite such contacts in a complaint to the NLRB.

Management, however, does find coercion an effective tactic. They have great levers: firing, threats of relocation, reassignment, reduction of hours, etc. The penalties for getting caught are so slight, they act with relative impunity. Forcing an election allows management 60 more days to apply these tactics, as well as ramping up the PR campaign.

Posted by: bob on October 21, 2006 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Bwahahahhaha!!!! You want to unionize Wal Mart? Bwahahahhaaaaaaaaa, keep trying idiot leftist lemmings!

Posted by: Donkey_Courage on October 21, 2006 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

Does no one else see the irony when some of the same people who are outraged about congress throwing out historic protections such as habeas corpus for alleged terrorists then turn around and demand that congress throw out another historic protection, secret ballot elections for employees?

Posted by: Blix on October 21, 2006 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Blix: maybe you should respond to posts as they are written, rather than to the ones unscrolling in your head. As I wrote, if we could ensure that the NLRB process was truly a "free and fair" expression of employees' will, there would be much less need - probably none at all - for card check.

But I'll be interested to know exactly when the Chamber of Commerce, and other recent converts to the democratic principle of secret ballots would endorse such an agenda. I think the phrase, "when hell freezes over," about captures it.

Finally, don't conflate issues: there is no inconsistency between card check and a secret expression of employees' preferences. If a union demonstrates a majority have signed up on cards, this can be easily tested through an independently conducted card check signing administered by the American Arbitration Association.

For the reasons mentioned by Bob above, unions would have almost nothing to fear from such a process, since coercion simply isn't a reliable approach for unions - though it works wonders for management!

Posted by: Friend of Labor on October 21, 2006 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Blix: one other point - if there is any connection whatsoever between the trashing of habeus corpus and NLRB elections (phew!) it is that the same administration pretends that both are compatible with democracy!

Posted by: Friend of Labor on October 21, 2006 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK


Great point. As usual, you and Al are on the ball. Keep it up dude.

Posted by: Donkey_Courage on October 21, 2006 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

I'd be delighted if employees of Wal-Mart and companies of similar ilk were represented by unions. But I'd hate to see that representation come at the cost of abandoning secret ballot elections in favor of card checks. When the American Arbitration Association certifies card checks, they are only confirming that the names and signatures on the cards match those of employees in the bargaining unit, not that employees signed cards free of coercion. Anyone who has actually been involved in card signings (I've been both a union member and a labor negotiator) knows that lots of signatures are the result of pressure from union staff and/or co-workers.

Posted by: Blix on October 21, 2006 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Without appologies, I am posting this link to an open letter from Kevin Tillman on every thread.

Posted by: Global Citizen on October 21, 2006 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin is terribly naive on this subject. I suspect he has never been anywhere close to a real union organizing situation. The survey he cites reads as a union press release.

The present system is not perfect, but it is built upon about 60 years of law and practical experience. It preserves the most fundamental and important element of freedom in the form of the secret ballot election. And yes, both sides (the union and the employer) get to campaign prior to the election and then the employees then get to decide in a secret ballot. Unions win about half the time. Only a naive or biased person would see this as a system that needs to be abolished.

Kevin also is naive in thinking there is any possibility of legislation passing on this issue.

Posted by: brian on October 21, 2006 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

Although it is unlikely that congress will replace secret ballot elections with card checks nationally, in 2001 the Democrat-controlled legislature in California did just that for state government employees, who are not subject to the NLRA. As a lifelong Democrat, I was embarrassed that members of my party caved in to union pressure on this issue. Secret ballot elections are a precious right that should not be tossed aside for special interests.

Posted by: Blix on October 21, 2006 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

You say you lean toward agreement with Columbia, which, as I stated argues that since grad student teachers are apprentices, they are not workers. This argument would be fine if the university were in any way serious about teaching pedagogy, if there actually were policy in place to ensure that all "apprentices" are actually being mentored. As it is, this is nothing but rhetoric to win an argument in court. The university also seems to have gone so far as to basically set up a front (so they can argue that there are resources for grad teachers) in the form of a new "Teaching Center," which is underfunded, has no director, and is staffed by grad students!
I do not necessarily want a union at Columbia, but I signed a card because union agitation over the last few years has improved the lot of the average grad student, forced the university to increase pay (which decreases time to degree, since fewer folks need second and third jobs, and likely ends up saving the university money in the end), provide better health coverage etc.
In any case, my main point was similar to those being made by folks pointing at the minuteman brawl at Columbia a few weeks back. Everyone was pretending to be surprised that a few students would rush a stage, and call into question someone else's right to free speech. Yet none of these people, so far as I remember, made even the slightest peep when the university president Bollinger (a first amendment scholar) had our ballot boxes seized and destroyed.

Posted by: middy on October 21, 2006 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

Blix misrepresents how card check works.

There's no set process - this is the result of bargaining between employer and the organizing union. Some result in the AAA validating the cards organizers ask employees to sign. Others result in the presentation of cards being followed by a AAA-run election. Still others have the card signing take place under the eyes of AAA reps.

The key thing is that the card-check process is preceded by an agreement between the employer and union on a free and fair process, in which the employer (at a minimum) gives the union a list of employees, ensures free access to the employees at work, free distribution of information, and promises not to retaliate or interfere, while the union promises to stop fighting the boss and pledges not to coerce employees. Any process worth its salt includes a code of conduct, a means for complaints to be made and resolved, and a possibility for monitoring.

With such a code in place it matters a lot less what specific mechanism is used to assess employees' preferences, but as I stressed, unions have advanced multiple means to do so.

The important point is that this takes place outside the framework of the NLRB and its provisions which overwhelmingly empower the employer and undermine the free expression of worker preferences, notwithstanding the use of a secret ballot. A process run under such codes of conduct more closely follows any recognizably democratic procedure.

I'd pay more attention to Blix' invocation of the "precious right" to secret ballots if he showed an ounce of concern about the pathetic NLRB process that precedes the casting of ballots. For someone who has been a "union member" and "labor negotiator" this comes as something of a surprise!

Posted by: Friend of Labor on October 22, 2006 at 1:16 AM | PERMALINK

"Friend of Labor" doesn't seem to know much about labor history. I don't have the time or energy to correct all the erroneous statements he/she has made about union organizing. But I must at least comment on his/her unwarranted contempt for the National Labor Relations Act. We're told that it's a "pathetic process" that "overwhelmingly empowers the employer." If you're not old enough, like me, to have lived many years of NLRA history, at least take the time to read up on it. Pinkerton thugs were shooting unionists in the streets before this breakthrough law in 1935 that for the first time protected the rights of workers to organize. The ranks of unions swelled by tens of millions in the years following its enactment. It has served its purpose well for 71 years. The decline of union membership in recent years cannot be blamed on the NLRA. If you don't like the politically-appointed NLRB members, elect a Democrat president to appoint liberal board members. If you think the NLRA's pre-election process can be improved, get out the vote to elect Democrats to congress and amend the law. Oh wait, that would take some actual effort, rather than just whining about how bad things are. With friends of labor like "Friend of Labor," who needs enemies?

Posted by: Blix on October 22, 2006 at 3:27 AM | PERMALINK

Blix, don't just moan about "erroneous statements" - show us the beef!

I'll stipulate that you are in fact a "union member" and "labor negotiator" old enough to remember the NLRA when it actually protected workers' rights.

Rather than question your bona fides (and this is a big concession), we'll ask a simple question: where the fuck have you been for the last twenty-five or so years?

Whatever the merits of the NLRB in its day, and they were considerable, it has been turned inside out to be almost unrecognizable today. This is especially true as regards protecting union organizing. The unfair labor practice provisions now offer about as much protection to workers during organizing drives as an unarmored Humvee does to our troops facing improvised explosives in Baghdad. Any decent organizer or union-side labor lawyer could tell you this in a heartbeat.

This started of course with the odious Taft-Hatley amendments passed the first chance a Republican congress had to start undoing the New Deal. That was the infamous "do nothing" Congress elected in 1946, which held the record for incompetence and right-wing zealotry until the current crop. Have democrats been complicit in this - of course.

By the way, I didn't say anything about the reasons for the decline of labor. We can explore this theme in another thread when Kevin does us the honor of bringing it up. There are certainly multiple reasons for decline, many of them self-inflicted, but it doesn't take a genius to understand that if you made organizing easier, cheaper, and less threatening to workers, there'd be alot more of it going on. You yourself suggest this when you point out the obvious that passage of the Wagner Act led to the organizing of millions of new union members. It stands to reason that its weakening - nay, its gutting - would at least contribute something to labor's decline. There are perfectly good reasons to work hard to bolster organizing protections under the NLRA (as there are for reinforcing any other hard-earned rights). That these strengthened rights would have the ancillary benefits of helping labor to grow make it an even more worthwhile endeavor.

We don't need a lesson in civics from you: take it as an article of faith that I and lots of other friends of labor will be working hard to elect a President and Congress that will resotre the NLRA to its original purpose. Really, really trust me on this: we are not just whining! Again, thanks to Kevin for giving profile to the issue - which helps drive home to Democrats how important this discussion is.

And by the way, Pinkerton's has agreed to go union through...card check!

Get with it, stipulated brother.

Posted by: Friend of Labor on October 22, 2006 at 4:27 AM | PERMALINK

Correction: should have written "Taft-Hartley" - my bad.

Posted by: Friend of Labor on October 22, 2006 at 4:46 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: mmf铃声 on October 22, 2006 at 8:12 AM | PERMALINK

Interesting thread, especially the grad students pro and con. I still think other institutions could provide all the benefits of unions with much less cost; the first would be a nationwide campaign to raise the minimum wage, which would cause a ratcheting effect on all wages.
For those of you die-hard union groupies, I'll repeat an offer I've made previously -- I'll accept some of your pro-union rule changes if you require each union member to have an annual opt-out procedure [much like a 401(k) plan], full, plain english union budget accounting statement provided to the workers, and a limit on any union bureaucrat salary at $120,000 pay and perks. Any takers?

Posted by: minion of rove on October 22, 2006 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

Friend of Labor: What I've said about the NLRA applies to the Taft-Hartley Act. If you don't like it, elect legislators to amend it. I do not agree that it should be thrown out, anymore than I agree that secret ballot elections should be thrown out. That's not being a friend of labor, that's being a stooge of labor.

One result of the Taft-Hartley Act that I particularly have favored over the years is that there's been fewer strikes and more arbitration--usually by the American Arbitration Association that you so admire. They've done a good job of resolving disputes peacefully and fairly. Thankfully, the US has not had to endure the kind of paralyzing national strikes and violence in the streets that European countries routinely experience to this day. Our labor laws, imperfect as they may be, have served us well.

Posted by: Blix on October 22, 2006 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Blix --

Arbitration is an empty reward when so few workers are united in unions. The number of workers who have access to your beloved arbitration has declined just as sharply as the number of workers who are members of an organization that gives us the power to launch a strike.

Your defense of the NLRA is likewise unconvincing. The current NLRB process makes a mockery of the secret ballot by giving one side -- the employer -- the power to compel voters to listen to its arguments and threats in person while doing almost nothing to allow prounion workers to make their case. As unctuously as you and other antiunion folks rhapsodize about the glories of the NLRA, the NLRB is no nearly as vigorous as it once was in policing the process -- especially after Taft-Hartley.

Finally, your pat dismissal of any criticsm of the limitations of the NLRA -- "elect different people if you don't like it" -- gets at the chicken and egg dilemma that working people face. Working people indeed do need to do more together to advocate for better policies, yet those deeply flawed policies create barriers to stop us from uniting together to organize an ongoing response to K Street.

Posted by: Albert Parsons on October 22, 2006 at 5:56 PM | PERMALINK

Blix to Martin Luther King: hey don't complain; they've got the secret ballot in the south. All those other laws preventing you from voting, if you don't like them, elect legislators to amend them!

Albert Parsons puts his finger on it: "Working people indeed do need to do more together to advocate for better policies, yet those deeply flawed policies create barriers to stop us from uniting together to organize an ongoing response to K Street."

Or, as Blix puts it: "Our labor laws, imperfect as they may be, have served us well."

The point is they were meant to serve workers, not "HR guys" like yourself! We don't need your concern troll misdirection here.

Posted by: Friend of Labor on October 22, 2006 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

Labor laws "were meant to serve workers," says Friend of Labor. Well, that's a rather one-sided way of looking at law, as if it should favor some members of society at the expense of others. In actuality, if one takes the time to read labor laws, it is clear that they are meant to serve all members of society.

In the case of the NLRA, on the one hand it offers "protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively" and on the other hand it recognizes that such protections require the "elimination" of "certain practices by some labor organizations, their officers, and members" that "have the intent or the necessary effect of burdening or obstructing commerce."

Similarly, the Taft-Hartley Act seeks "to prescribe the legitimate rights of both employees and employers in their relations affecting commerce."

The Truth bites, huh Friend?

Posted by: Blix on October 22, 2006 at 9:28 PM | PERMALINK

Blix: between your posing as a democrat and labor ally and your advocacy of a contemporary anti-labor position more in line with the Chamber of Commerce, you are tying yourself up in knots and mixing up your talking points.

So now the NLRA - indeed all law - serves all members of society? Laws are passed all the time that "favor some members of society at the expense of others" - have you spent any time reading the Bush tax code?

With respect to the NLRA, not only are you reading history backward, through the lens of the Taft Hartley Act, but you are forgetting what you yourself wrote above:

"Pinkerton thugs were shooting unionists in the streets before this breakthrough law in 1935 that for the first time protected the rights of workers to organize. The ranks of unions swelled by tens of millions in the years following its enactment."

It would have come as a great surprise to business in 1935 that the NLRA was meant to serve them; business vehemently opposed the NLRA and many employers refused to abide by it. It became a key theme in business' and the Republican Party's (unsuccessful) attacks on Roosevelt in the 1936 election. They fully appreciated your insight about what would happen to their power with the enrolling of millions of new union members, and the first chance their party had in power, in 1947, they took steps to refashion the law in service of business interests. No need to falsify history.

Of course the NLRA did become what you describe (and in fact support) a legislative framework that has for many years reinforced social forces quite at variance with its original intent. Again, we don't need the pretence here.

If you have empirical evidence to contest the claims I made a while back about the way the NLRB currently operates to disadvantage workers, I'd love to hear them. In other words, focus on the main issue here. Otherwise go back to your HR job.

Posted by: Friend of Labor on October 23, 2006 at 12:13 AM | PERMALINK



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