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BOO! WSJ Attempts to Resurrect “Big Labor” Boogeyman

Jessica Christensen,
Legal Satyricon Employment Law Correspondent

In a particularly spun editorial, the Wall Street Journal suggests that if Senator Obama wins the election, the country is going to get just lousy with liberals, and we’ll all be subject to a “regime” of über “left-wing” legislation that heretofore has only been held back by the tempered Republican voices of reason (read: filibuster).

The tone of the article, and, well, Republican campaigning in general these days, harkens back to cold-war politics. Suddenly we’re again hearing all about “tax and spend” liberals and the looming communist menace, the dangers of an “activist government” and the “welfare-state.” Monsters under our beds, they say. Among the terrifying names being trotted out (perhaps in desperation?) is that of “Big Labor.”

In reality, there’s nothing “big” about Big Labor anymore. As WSJ correctly notes, only 7.4% of private sector employees currently belong to a labor union (source). For a variety of reasons – including the transformation of the U.S. marketplace from a majority manufacturing economy to a majority service economy, cultural shifts that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, and a breakdown in labor law enforcement – union membership rates have been in a near free fall since the 1950s (when union membership in the private sector briefly neared 50% – and working class families all benefited as a result). The once powerful AFL-CIO, which at a time did in fact wield fairly weighty political will, has suffered immensely at the hands of the new global economy, industrial deregulation, and infighting.

So just what new and terrible threat does “Big Labor” hope to bring to your doorstep under Obama’s presidency? According to the WSJ, it’s the ( Employee Free Choice Act – a bill that in fact did die in the face of a Republican senatorial filibuster in 2007 (notably, it was introduced by two Democrats and one Republican).

The Employee Free Choice Act has three major provisions:

Card Check-Off – under current federal labor law, unions must not only obtain a majority of “cards” signed by employees indicating that they want to designate the union as their collective bargaining representative, but must also endure months (or sometimes years) of waiting for an election to be held. In the interim, employers are free to hold captive meetings inside the workplace, and use supervisors and threats to discourage employees from making a free choice. The Employee Free Choice Act would change the law to permit a majority of employees to designate their collective bargaining representative using only a check of signed cards, through a federally regulated process, without the requirement of holding a formal election.

Facilitation of Contract Signing – currently, there are few incentives for employers, once the union has been elected and certified as the collective bargaining representative, to actually negotiate a contract with the union. Often, even though employees have made their choice, employers will stall and delay signing a contract for years – thereby continuing to pay low wages, with the hope that employees will become discouraged and abandon their choice. The Employee Free Choice Act would provide a system of time limits, by which the employer and union must engage in federal mediation and arbitration to facilitate contract negotiations and ensure that some kind of agreement is reached within two years.

Increased Penalties for Unlawful Conduct – the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees labor relations and union elections, currently has little power to punish employers for violating federal labor law during union election campaigns and contract negotiations. The Employee Free Choice Act would increase civil penalties for violations, would permit the agency to award employees treble back-pay if they are denied wages as a result of violations, and would provide easier access to injunctive relief to prevent future violations.

What’s so scary about that, you ask? Nothing. The WSJ argues that the bill would “force businesses to recognize a union whether the workers support it or not” because unions would be free to “strongarm” employees into signing cards. Make no mistake friends, the Hoffa-days of brutish labor organizers are long, long gone. Today’s labor organizers are largely fresh-faced recent college grads endeavoring to perform public service – basically, the labor movement equivalent of Greenpeace organizers. Seriously, when was the last time anyone was intimated by a Greenpeace organizer? When was the last time you saw bands of stick-wielding union thugs running the halls of your workplace? No, the real strongarming comes from employers, who frequently fire and discipline employees for showing union support, often, under current law, without consequence.

Amidst all the fear mongering about “higher taxes” and “free-market restraint,” ponder this: how different would our nation’s economic state be right now if people were making real living wages? Perhaps we would have been able to afford those now foreclosed homes without needing to resort to sub-prime mortgages in the first place? Perhaps it would be unnecessary to even contemplate raising taxes, because higher incomes across the board means more tax revenue in the federal coffers? Even if all of that is mere speculation, what should be clear is that the resurrection of the “Big Labor” boogeyman is yet one more attempt to keep voters afraid and uninformed.

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