Checking Out Card Check

The so-called card check issue — that would scrap secret ballots and let labor bosses form unions by getting a simple majority of workers in a company to “check” a card — is producing some strange political reversals. On one hand, there is the far-left icon (and failed Democratic presidential candidate) George McGovern who has condemned efforts by Congressional Democrats to push the misleadingly titled card check bill called the Employee Free Choice Act. “(This is) disturbing and undemocratic overreach not in the interest of either management or labor,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently. “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.” On the other hand, there is University of Columbia Professor Jagdish Bhagwati who came out whole-hog in support of card check in the New Republic recently.

Bhagwati’s position is interesting because, although a committed liberal, there is no love lost between him and unions. That’s because he has been as staunch a champion of free markets and free trade as they come — both in his academic work (for which he has long been on the Noble short-list) and popular writings. In his magnus opus In Defense of Globalization he points out in no uncertain terms that “fair trade” is merely protectionism in sheep’s clothing that helps workers neither in rich nor poor countries. Thus when he joins ranks with unions on card check, one has to stand up and take notice.

Bhagwati maintains that real wages of U.S. workers have been stagnating for a long time. The AFL-CIO — representing largely the manufacturing sector — mistakenly blames trade with poor countries for this. By contrast, the less powerful break-away faction SEIU — consisting of service employees — has correctly emphasized internal causes, including the declining union membership, as the real culprit.

This state of affairs, in his view, suggests a strategic and a principled reason to support card check. The strategic reason is essentially that by giving unions’ card check and enhancing their ability to boost their declining numbers and thus wages, one takes the wind out of AFL-CIO’s opposition to free trade. The principled reason is that card check would offer a necessary counter-weight to legislation that for half a century has seriously inhibited the effectiveness of organized labor by banning things like sympathy strikes.

Setting aside Prof. Bhagwati’s claim that unions help to raise worker wages, neither of these reasons actually adds up to a plausible case for card check, in my view.

There is no reason to believe that giving unions the ability to boost their membership through card check will in any way dilute their opposition to free trade. More likely, they will use their enhanced political clout to ratchet up this opposition. SEIU might not have made protectionism its signature issue like its AFL-CIO comrades, but that’s because its members are less threatened by free trade. A maid working in a U.S. hotel does not face a competitive threat from a maid working in a Third World hotel. However, if card check allows SEIU to infiltrate those sectors that are vulnerable to outsourcing, SEIU might in fact become a more vocal — and potent — opponent of free trade.

Prof. Bhagwati’s other claim that unions have been handicapped by laws limiting the kinds of activities they can engage in to press their issues has more merit. (In fact, I myself pointed out in a recent Los Angeles Times Dust Up that unions should be allowed to use any non-violent means to press their cause, including sympathy and wild cat strikes — all of which are banned under current law. As a corollary, employers too should be allowed to use any non-violent means to prevent unionization or break unions, including yellow dog contracts that too are banned). But the proper response to such restrictions on union activity is to get rid of them — not take away the right of workers not to unionize. That only disenfranchises workers more — not less. Two wrongs do not a right make.

The card check threat has receded for now following a high-level defection by Republican Senator Arlene Specter that has deprived Congressional Democrats of a filibuster-proof majority. But, as the Wall Street Journal noted this week, that might change if the Democratic machinery prevails upon some of the anti-card check Democrats in swing states to change their mind.