Card-Check Organizing (or, Too Many Goliaths)
by Nancy Scola, Sat Dec 16, 2006 at 10:02:37 AM EST
With Bayh dropping out, citing the possibility that there would be just "too many Goliaths" in the 2008 race, Americans have been spared the burden of struggling to tell him and John Edwards apart in photographs for the next two years. That's the latest good news for Edwards, who seems to have been having a great run of late. It's no secret here that Edwards wants to enter the election season as a champion of American labor, a friend to the union movement. He talks easily about the relationship between Wal-Mart and its workers -- though I don't know if he's specifically addressed the company's "we do not believe there is a need for third party representation" stance. He's courting the big-boy unions. And he's turned to former House Whip Dave Bonior to lead his possible presidential run. (I say possible because one thing I've learned -- first with Warner, now with Bayh -- is that when potential candidates say that they're just considering a campaign, they might actually mean it.) Bonior's the chair of American Rights at Work, a group whose raison d'etre is to help workers get unionized.
But it's no secret that unions in America today are struggling. Union membership has dropped from 20 in 1983 to 13 percent last year. And the bulk of unionized America is made up of teachers, firefighters and other public workers -- compare the 37 of government workers who are unionized with the 8 percent of private employees who have collective representation. The problems of the American labor movement are many, many. But one big one is the hurdle that individual workers face just trying to organize themselves into a union. That's where card check comes in.
Stop me if you've heard this, but America once had a system called card-check organizing in which workers indicated their authorization of a collective bargaining rep simply by signing a card. Once 50% of the workers plus one signed these cards, they were shipped to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), who then pronounced the workers unionized. But card check was killed by the 1947 Labor-Management Relations Act, a.k.a. Taft-Hartley. Without card check, the system greatly favors the employer who wants no part of a unionized workplace. Without the expedited card-check process, management now has the chance to stop the momentum of unionization by attacking the collectivist spirit in their employees one-on-one. As Thomas Geoghegan put it in his fantastic book Which Side Are You On?:
Taft-Hartley ended "card checks" which the NLRB had just begun using to certify unions. The workers could just sign cards, saying "Hey, I'd like to join." And this is the system still used in Canada. But this would have been too easy, so Taft-Hartley required hearings, campaign periods, secret-ballot elections, and sometimes more hearings, before a union could be officially recognized.
(What's the argument against card check? Well, other than the fact that some employers just plain don't like unions, the argument goes that card-checked employees will never get a chance to cast a secret ballot for or against their collective bargaining rep.)
There's a bill that will come up before Congress next year, called the Employee Free Choice Act, that would restore card check. Pelosi has said that she'd like to see movement on it in early 2007. It's one of the bills talked about in Ezra Klein's article on the legislative proposals that progressives should focus on both because (a) they're good public policy and (2) they'll help grow and strengthen a Democratic majority. I don't know that even if the bill did become a law pre-2008 it would help Edwards all that much. But if America is soon a more union-friendly place, we may see more candidates who discover their love of the American labor movement.
(I'll admit that I had never heard of "card check" before I spent this past election week in southeastern Pennsylvania with the AFL-CIO. And was shocked to find that Wikipedia had no "card check" entry. It was like it never existed at all. So I started a page on it, but it'd be useful for some of us who know the ins-and-outs of union organizing to fix it up a bit. If it's going to be one of the building blocks of progressivism moving forward, we want to make sure people can easily find out what it is.)