Out of Control Policy Blog

Obama and Big Labor

In a column in yesterday's Forbes, Reason Foundation's Shikha Dalmia says the McCain campaign missed an opportunity by failing to discuss Barack Obama's support for "card check."

Perhaps Republicans deserve to lose this election--but that doesn't mean they shouldn't try to win. It is not clear, however, that the McCain campaign agrees. How else to explain its failure to alert voters of frightening liberal ideas such as "card check" that are bound to be enacted if Democrats sweep into the White House and Congress?

Card check--the most radical revision of labor law since 1935--would allow unions to do away with secret ballots, a fundamental right in a democracy, and unionize companies simply by coaxing, cajoling or coercing a majority of workers into signing a card. It came alarmingly close to being enacted last year when the House overwhelmingly passed the fraudulently named Employee Free Choice Act. The Republican minority in the Senate eventually filibustered the legislation.

But this last line of defense will crumple if Democrats gain a super-majority in the Senate. Also, Sen. Barack Obama--who was one of the co-sponsors of the legislation--has already declared that he will make card check "the law of the land when I'm president of the United States." No surprise then that Big Labor is pumping close to $400 million to elect him and his fellow Democrats--likely the single largest buying spree ever by an interest group.

But card check will be bad for workers and businesses. And why McCain is not shouting this from the rooftops is one of the big mysteries of his campaign.

Unions have been losing membership steadily since their heyday in the 1950s when nearly 35% of the American workforce belonged to a union, compared with 7.5% today. Indeed, even as the economy added more than 9.5 million jobs between 1999 and 2006, unions lost more than 1 million members.

One big reason is that workers simply don't believe that handing over 1% to 2% of their wages in mandatory union dues is worth the services that Big Labor offers. Their skepticism is not unjustified. A 2002 study by the Bureau of National Affairs found that, after adjusting for cost-of-living, private sector workers in the 10 least unionized states earned $1,600 more annually than workers in the 10 most heavily unionized states. What's more, between 1992 and 2002, the less unionized states generated twice as many nonfarm jobs--with better benefits--than more unionized states.

But instead of enticing reluctant workers by offering better prices or services--as a club losing membership would do--unions want to effectively coerce them by taking away their right to a fair vote. Furthermore, Big Labor wants to eliminate the elections required to form a union, while keeping them for when workers want to remove an existing union. This is a flagrant double-standard designed to turn workers into union hostages!

Workers understand the dangers of card check, which is why 78% of union members support keeping the current secret ballot system, according to a 2004 Zogby survey conducted for the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Workers won't be the only losers under card check, however. Non-unionized companies in the manufacturing sector will confront new union drives. Even industries such as hospitals and hotels that never imagined they would be vulnerable to unionization would potentially become union shops. But the grand prize that Big Labor is coveting is the retail sector--and not just big-box stores like Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people ) and Home Depot (nyse: HD - news - people ), but also medium-sized establishments like pharmacies and grocery stores.

Companies' biggest fear is that unions will foist rigid workplace rules upon them--just as they did on the former Big Three automakers--preventing them from quickly redeploying their workforce in response to shifting market conditions, crimping their productivity and global competitiveness.

But there is an even deeper problem that card check will exacerbate: There has been a major shift in the mentality of the modern-day labor movement, which now regards political advocacy as its main role rather than workplace representation. Witness, for instance, its advocacy of nationalized health care.

Yet it is far from clear if union rank-and-file approve of this shift. Indeed, the 2004 Mackinac Center poll found that 43% of union members believed not enough union funds were spent on "efforts to secure better wages, benefits and working conditions."

With card check, however, Big Labor will get more money and added flexibility to further ignore the wishes of its rank-and-file and pursue its political agenda.

McCain could have used his own opposition to card check to expose the joint agenda of Big Labor and the Democrats while wooing ordinary, blue-collar voters. That he didn't do so might be one of the biggest missed opportunities of his campaign.


See Shikha Dalmia's contribution to Reason's 2008 Political Poll.

Katie Hooks is Digital Media Marketing Manager


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