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Card Check: Good for Unions, Bad for America

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Obama administration's budget is full of proposals that threaten to weaken our staggering economy. Higher taxes on high earners and reduced deductions for their charitable contributions and mortgage interests. A cap-and-trade system that will impose higher costs on everyone who uses electricity. A national health insurance program that will take $600 billion or so out of the private-sector economy.

But the most grievous threat to future prosperity may be off-budget -- the inaptly named Employee Free Choice Act. Also known as card check, the legislation would effectively abolish secret ballots in unionization elections. It provides that once a majority of employees had filled out sign-up cards circulated by union organizers, the employer would have to recognize and bargain with the union. And if the two sides didn't reach agreement in a short term, federal arbitrators would impose one. Wages, fringe benefits and work rules would all be imposed by the federal government.

It's not difficult to see why union leaders want this. Union membership has fallen from more than 30 percent of the private-sector workforce in the 1950s to about 8 percent today. Union leaders would like to see that go up. So would most Democratic politicians, since some portion of union dues -- unions try to conceal how much -- goes directly or indirectly to support Democratic candidates. The unions and the Democrats want to put up a tollgate on as much of the private sector as they can, to extract money from consumers of goods and services.

They have already set up such tollgates on much of the public sector. In the 1950s, very few public-sector workers were union members. Today, nearly half of all union members are public-sector employees. In many states and central cities -- think California and New York City -- public-sector unions channel vast flows of money, all of it originating from taxpayers, to themselves and to Democratic politicians. The unions use that money to promote some public policies that are not obviously in the interests of public-sector employees -- restrictive trade regulations, for example, which appeal to nostalgic union leaders who would like to see millions of unionized autoworkers and steelworkers once again.

In the previous Congress, the unions got the Democratic House to pass the card check proposal and got every Democratic senator not only to vote for it but to co-sponsor it, as well. But the votes of all Democrats plus that of Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter were not enough then to overcome a Senate filibuster. This year, there is little doubt that Speaker Nancy Pelosi could again jam card check through the House. But moderate Democrats from districts where unions are unpopular have gotten her to spare them a vote until and unless the measure gets through the Senate.

There, its prospects are not so good, now that there is no longer a Republican president to veto it. Card check supporters have a list of 15 Democratic senators who have expressed some manner of unease about the issue. Does Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, up for re-election in 2010, really want to pass a law strongly opposed by her state's biggest business, Wal-Mart, long a target of union organizers? Do Democratic senators from right-to-work states where employees can't be required to join unions want to go along?

As for Specter, union leaders have publicly said they'll support him if he backs card check. His public response has been to hail the importance of the secret ballot and the undesirability of mandatory arbitration.

Politicians can read numbers. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reported last week that 61 percent of Americans think it's fair to require a secret ballot vote if workers want a union. Only 18 percent disagree. Congressional Democrats used to believe that themselves -- in the course of a trade debate in 2001, they urged that Mexico hold secret ballot unionization elections.

Rasmussen also reported an interesting difference between current union members and non-members. Union members by a 47 percent to 18 percent margin thought most workers want to join a labor union. But non-members believe by a 56 percent to 14 percent margin that most workers don't.

Are non-union members deluded? Why don't they want the supposedly higher wages and job protections unions purport to give them? Maybe it's because the adversarial unionism promoted by the Wagner Act of 1935 is out of date. It made some sense when employers used time-and-motion study to speed up assembly lines and squeeze the last quantum of energy out of workers and could lay off workers at will.

But today's employees have unemployment compensation and are protected by various anti-discrimination laws. There is a whole raft of employment law that didn't exist in 1935, and corporate human resources departments are disciplined by that law.

As the Detroit automakers' troubles show, the adversarial work rules insisted on by the United Auto Workers -- a relatively enlightened union in this area -- made them unable to compete in quality or cost with foreign automakers who employ cooperative management techniques and treat their workers as intelligent partners rather than as dumb animals, the way the time-and-motion study managers did in the 1930s.

Card check would give coercive union organizers the chance to impose on large swaths of the private-sector economy the burdens the UAW imposed on the Detroit automakers. It would set up tollgates to channel the money of consumers as well as taxpayers to the Democratic Party. You can see how that would be good for union leaders and Democrats. But good for America?

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