Immigration reform wasn’t the only initiative stymied in the U.S. Senate last week. In a largely party-line vote, senators refused to cut off debate on a bill that had been a legislative priority for the Democratic majority: a change in labor law that would make it easier for unions to organize workers.
Unlike immigration reform, however, this legislation deserved to die.
The problem with the bill, previously passed by the House, is not that it would make union organizing easier. That is a worthy goal. Organized labor persuasively argues that under current law employers often fire workers who try to form a union. Such reprisals are illegal, and employers who violate the law should be punished with tougher sanctions.
Yet the misleadingly titled Employee Free Choice Act would go beyond punishing illegal behavior by employers to give unions an unfair one might even say an un-American advantage. The bill would have allowed organizers to secure bargaining rights as soon as a majority of workers at a workplace sign an authorization card. Under current law, employers have the option of insisting on a secret ballot election.
You don’t have to be an apologist for employers to recognize that the so-called card-check system invites abuses. Of course employers shouldn’t be able to punish workers for wanting to join a union. But neither should union organizers be able to pressure unwilling or hesitant co-workers to authorize a union.
As The Times editorial board has observed, the bedrock principle of federal labor law is not unionism at all costs, but the right of workers to choose whether they want to affiliate with a union.
Given a fair choice in a secret ballot and one that is not conducted in the shadow of harassment by management workers often will decide that affiliating with a union is in their interest. In general, unions in a workplace promote not only job security but safety as well.
But that choice should be a free one, and nothing ensures a free election better than a secret ballot in which neither the employer nor the union organizer is looking over a worker’s shoulder as she makes her choice. The labor movement used to support the secret ballot (and there’s evidence that a majority of union members still do). The movement was right then and it’s wrong now.
Instead of railing against Republicans for blocking action on this flawed bill, Democrats should regroup and propose legislation that would focus on the real problem: inadequate penalties for employers who intimidate or harass workers who want to unionize. That would be a real Employee Free Choice Act.
Michael McGough is The Times’ senior editorial writer.
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