Spotlight on Union Voting

Labor leaders have a moral victory, while business doesn’t seem to even know there’s a fight.

Most of the retailers I’ve met with around the country haven’t heard of it. Jack Welch recently cautioned his peers that they were sleepwalking into disaster. The AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney vowed to make its passage inevitable by 2009.

It’s the Orwellian concept named Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). It’s bad news for businesses and their employees. And it’s alarming how few opinion leaders have taken notice, despite a trial run of EFCA making it all the way through the House and to the Senate before a filibuster put it into temporary remission.

Desperate to prop up its dwindling membership rolls, the AFLCIO has called on Congress to scrap industrial democracy. EFCA would allow unions to force their way into the workplace using a petition-like process called “card check,” instead of the traditional private-ballot election for employees. If EFCA becomes law, employees will have no opportunity to express their unionization preferences in a voting booth. Instead, if they would normally vote “no,” they must refuse to sign a union card in front of labor organizers.

It’s easy enough to envision how this “voting” would be bad for employees. In organizing drives where it’s been used in the past, countless workers have testified to being intimidated, coerced and deceived into signing cards that give unions access to businesses where they are unable to win actual elections.

When The Orange County Register reported on the unionization of a health network’s nurses in Southern California, several nurses wrote to complain that when they signed cards they were never told they were being signed up for a union.

Business can’t afford to relax simply because EFCA didn’t make it through the Senate this time. Warning shots aren’t supposed to hit their targets.

What I can’t square is why a business world obsessed with vision and leadership has not demonstrated much of either in the face of a massive union power grab. It doesn’t take much of a visionary to see that even if EFCA didn’t become law this year, 18 months from now may be an entirely different story. And it doesn’t take a PR pro to understand that the retail industry’s position must be publicized now, before ill-informed public opinion can solidify in labor’s favor. Several surveys have shown that, when educated about this attempt to hijack elections, Americans (even those in unions) overwhelmingly support keeping the secret ballot.

If Americans don’t learn now, they will in a couple of years, when organizers start cornering employees at offices, shops and factories—not to mention their homes—to get their very public signatures on union authorization cards.

If an over-the-horizon view of this issue isn’t enough, retailers should consider their current obligations. The corporate world owes its shareholders and its employees more than a passive attitude. Union work rules can kill a company’s stock value faster than you can say “Bethlehem Steel” (I should know, I was a labor lawyer there). And no employee deserves to have dues money forced out of his paycheck just because a union managed to twist enough arms.

For purely selfish reasons, retailing leaders might also fear the disruptive effect the Employee Free Choice Act would have on their jobs. It would make CEOs into labor negotiators, CFOs into contract lawyers and current HR directors into retirees.

Organized labor’s passion for getting this law passed is the elephant in the room: Ignore it at your own risk.