Rumor of card check's 'death' is greatly exaggerated

NewsAnalysis

Many lawmakers returning home for the Memorial Day break found themselves face to face with union members determined to win passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Thousands have been mobilizing in more than 200 events in key states like Alaska, Louisiana, Indiana, Maine, Arkansas and Louisiana. The states are “key” because they are represented either by Democratic senators who have been sitting on the fence or by Republicans who are considered likely to be influenced by pressure from workers.

The actions, including everything from 24-hour candlelight vigils and town hall meetings to letter writing and phone banking campaigns, came as articles were published claiming that “card check” is “dead.”

Typical of these reports is one by Liza Featherstone May 24 in Slate.com’s “The Big Money,” which got some traction, being picked up by other blogs and news services.

The article claims that President Obama himself has pronounced “card check” dead and that the Employee Free Choice Act didn’t have the votes to pass but that a “compromise” could work. By compromise, the article says, the president meant a version of the bill without card check, the provision obliging employers to recognize unions after a majority of workers have signed cards.

Featherstone claims, “On the same day, Sen. Arlen Specter, a key swing vote, said that he, too, would support a ‘compromise’ on EFCA: card-check-free, of course.”

President Obama never said anything about “card check” being dead. He merely indicated that work is being done on developing a compromise. The same is true of Sen. Specter.

Featherstone did not interview Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democratic leader who has been working to develop a “compromise” that keeps the bill fundamentally intact.

One such compromise keeps majority sign-up, but allows workers to check a box on the card indicating they would prefer an election.

Another such compromise, also keeps majority sign-up but has workers filling their cards out at home and mailing them into the National Labor Relations Board.

Nowhere in the article does it mention that “card check” is already in place. There are unions that have been recognized by companies when a majority has signed pledge cards, a practice that has been going on since passage of the National Labor Relations Act during the Great Depression. It is only with the passage of Taft-Hartley that companies have been allowed the option of calling for an election after they receive the cards.

However, elections take too long, allow the bosses to hire union-busting lawyers, fire union supporters, spy on workers and do whatever else it takes to keep the union out.

Workers at low wage firms like Wal-Mart, CVS, Walgreen’s and Starbucks are up against companies who factor anti-union campaigns into their operating expenses. The type of business they operate runs according to plan as long as there is a good supply of low-paid, short-term labor. This is so important to their profits that they are willing to spend heavily to keep unions out.

The Featherstone article also quotes a “pro-labor” Columbia University economist who says that the real problem with labor law is not how it allows unions to be formed but how it makes strikes so difficult for workers to carry out.

This argument sidesteps the fact that one of the worst parts of current labor law is that it allows companies to stall in bargaining even when workers choose to unionize. This problem would be solved by the EFCA, with a 120-day limit imposed before federal arbitrators would step in.

Featherstone went on to lament the supposed lack of militancy in the labor movement. She quotes Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, out of context, as saying demonstrations are less needed in the United States than in Europe “because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a half-dozen senators.” She goes on to say that this approach has failed with the Employee Free Choice Act.

But, in fact, the labor movement has marched, picketed, sat-in, demonstrated, petitioned and engaged in major strikes from one end of the country to the other. It mobilized for the elections on all levels, re-shaped the face of Capitol Hill, changed the Congress, changed the Senate and was critical in the election of perhaps the most pro-labor administration in U.S. history.

Because of this militancy we are on the verge of seeing serious, major labor law reform in this country.

jwojcik@pww.org