Democracy and Unions

George McGovern has an editorial in the WSJ urging the Democratic party to abandon the idea of stripping secret balloting from union organizing elections:

The key provision of EFCA is a change in the mechanism
by which unions are formed and recognized. Instead of a private
election with a secret ballot overseen by an impartial federal board,
union organizers would simply need to gather signatures from more than
50% of the employees in a workplace or bargaining unit, a system known
as "card-check." There are many documented cases where workers have
been pressured, harassed, tricked and intimidated into signing cards
that have led to mandatory payment of dues.

Under EFCA, workers could lose the freedom to express
their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone
peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal.

There's no question that unions have done much good
for this country. Their tenacious efforts have benefited millions of
workers and helped build a strong middle class. They gave workers a new
voice and pushed for laws that protect individuals from unfair
treatment. They have been a friend to the Democratic Party, and so I
oppose this legislation respectfully and with care.

To my friends supporting EFCA I say this: We cannot be
a party that strips working Americans of the right to a secret-ballot
election. We are the party that has always defended the rights of the
working class. To fail to ensure the right to vote free of intimidation
and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always

I have always been a bit torn on this issue.  I don't in general think the government needs to get involved in how private organizations do their business.  However, by force of law, unions are not a normal private organization. They have special rights, including ones that mimic taxation, other groups do not have:

Unfortunately, we don't live in a free society, and the term "union"
comes with a lot of legal baggage.  Recognized unions are granted
certain legal powers and rights that an average group of self-organized
folks don't.  For example, they are the only private organizations in
this country that I know of that have taxation power, and the power to
demand absolutely that certain monies be withheld from employee
paychecks (even of employees not in the union) and given to them.
Perhaps more importantly, companies can't ignore them - they have
to negotiate with a recognized union.  Unions also have informal
powers.  For example, the legal system tends to tolerate a lot of
violence and physical intimidation by union members (in strikes and
such) that it does not tolerate in other contexts  (seventy-five years
ago, the situation was reversed and the system tolerated a lot of
company violence against workers).


  1. tribal elder:

    Mr. McGovern appears to have principles. He thinks people should actually get to choose ! That all seems rather quaint for a Democrat.

    The Democrats have devolved into a coalition of special interest groups, united only their individual and collective victimhoods and a burning ambition for the wallets of others, said wallets to be accessed by coercion.

  2. Anon E. Mouse:

    Another important legal power: Unions are cartels, just like OPEC.

  3. James Howe:

    I believe that having worked in the business world for awhile, George McGovern has a better understanding of reality than do most current politicians. Based on a couple of recent things that he has written, I wish he were running for President again, instead of any of the current crop of losers.

  4. Flash Gordon:

    I don't think you need to be torn on this issue. It is no offense to liberty for government to take not only direct steps to prevent violence and coercion, such as having laws against assault, but to also take indirect steps to prevent the creation of conditions and circumstances that are known to lead to coercion of the weak by the strong. Protecting workers' rights to a secret ballot is a sound measure to secure their ability to freely choose whether they support a union.

    Besides, unions are not private organizations because they have been given special powers by federal legislation to force private companies into collective bargaining arrangements upon an affirmative vote by the company's employees. The government therefore has an interest in assuring that such extraordinary powers are triggered only upon an honest and accurate vote, free from intimidation.

  5. BobH:

    Let's hold all elections this way.

    The Republican block captain shows up at your front door, with the IRS agent standing behind him and says, "Citizen Jones, we notice you haven't yet signed the card for President Bush's re-election. Please sign here."

  6. Dr. T:

    Last year, at the Memphis VA Medical Center, a union wanted to represent all professional health care workers (except nurses, who already had a union). Unbeknownst to the workers, the VA administrators agreed to the following: The union could represent all professional workers if greater than 50% of the workers who voted chose "yes". This heavily pro-union voting policy was not publicized. Most doctors, pharmacists, rehab therapists, etc. had no interest in the union and didn't vote. Those who wanted a union, did vote. Unsurprisingly, the union won despite getting "yes" votes from less than 25% of eligible workers.

    This may be one of the most blatant cases of union favoritism by the federal government. VA administrators favor unions: the administrators can blame their inability to remove poor workers on the unions rather than their own incompetence. Unions also are more difficult to deal with than individual employees, so VA administrators can justify having bigger human resources departments. Union work rules decrease productivity and provide VA administrators with excuses for poor outcomes or justifications for adding personnel. Both bureaucracies (VA and union) expand, and everyone is happy (except for the taxpayers, VA patients, and good VA employees -- but they don't count).

  7. Flash Gordon:

    And VA Hospitals were already places no sick person would want to go.