Restoring Worker Choice

The National Labor Relations Act, rightfully called the Magna Carta of workers rights in the United States, was enacted in 1935 to support the practice and procedure of collective bargaining for workers in the United States. Known as the Wagner Act, this landmark legislation protects the exercise of workers of full freedom of association, self-organization and designation of representatives of their own choosing in order to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.

On this Labor Day, union membership continues to decline. There are many reasons for this shrinkage: the restructuring of the economy away from manufacturing toward services, the advance of workers in past generations into the middle class and union-busting tactics by corporations and institutions. But as workers share of national income has declined over the last two decades, as the middle class has shrunk and inequality has grown, why have unions not rebounded? One reason is the impediments put in the way of union organizing by the regulations and judgments of the National Labor Relations Board. Chief among these is the requirement of secret ballot elections, now so encumbered with legal obstacles that union-busting businesses have the upper hand over workers seeking to organize.


To level the playing field, the House passed the Employee Free Choice Act last March, which would permit unions to organize if the majority of workers gave their authorization by what is usually called a check-card method, the procedure followed in most of the industrialized world. But in June a motion to close debate and move to a vote in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster, failed 51 to 48.

The E.F.C.A. would restore the organizing procedure that was established in the Wagner Act. The bill would also provide workers with some countervailing power in the form of mandatory injunctions against unfair labor practices committed during organizing campaigns. Opponents maintain that restoring the older procedures would eliminate government supervision, violate worker privacy and expose workers to union coercion.

The N.L.R.B., an independent federal agency established in 1935, was created to enforce the N.L.R.A. primarily through recognizing a union as legitimate if it had been selected by workers who signed authorization cards and by ruling on grievances that workers brought against employers. The mission of the N.L.R.B. was altered significantly, however, with the passage of the anti-union Taft-Hartley or Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947. Taft-Hartley permits employers to recognize a union voluntarily after the presentation of signed cards, but it also allows employers to demand a secret ballot election that forces workers to vote for or against their earlier choice. Accordingly, today the vast majority of employers refuse to recognize the authorization cards in favor of a much more time-consuming election that is supervised by the N.L.R.B.

The trial-like N.L.R.B. hearings that precede a secret ballot election afford the employer numerous opportunities to discredit the workers choice as expressed through their signed cards. Employers hire sophisticated and expensive union avoidance firms that essentially put the workers on trial by challenging the size and composition of the bargaining unit, an individuals status as an employee under the N.L.R.A. and by engaging in other legal maneuvers designed to discredit the union. It can take years before an election is ordered and even longer before bargaining begins, since some employers reject the election and must be compelled to bargain by federal courts.

The Employee Free Choice Act would restore rights that workers have lost through the years. The Act would require the N.L.R.B. to certify a union as the exclusive representative of the employees when a majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for bargaining has signed valid authorizations. Since E.F.C.A. essentially recognizes the signing of authorization cards as an election, there is no need for yet another election that is demanded by employers. The act would also streamline contract negotiations by requiring that parties who cannot agree to a first bargaining agreement within 120 days must submit the disputed issues to arbitration.

The Employee Free Choice Act is the most important piece of labor legislation in the past 72 years. Both the spirit and the letter of this act strongly resonate with Catholic social teaching, from Rerum Novarum to Laborem Exercens. It deserves to be made the law of the land.

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11 years 2 months ago
The secret ballot is a cornerstone of a free people, and as we are taught to pray in secret, we also always need the support of the Church for our freedom to vote in secret.
John Walton
11 years 2 months ago
Even in the 1930's the Roosevelt Administration, well aware of the intimidation and violent tactics used by organizers in Europe, refused to go along with the concept of unionization by acclamation. Roosevelt termed it "thuggery". I would ask the author to respond to the following question: "how is it in any way contrary to the concept of human dignity, expressed at the outset of Laborem Excercens and in Section 20, to allow a worker the right to vote without fear of retribution?" Apparently JP-II was critically aware of the non-political character and purpose of unions.
Alex Barron
11 years 2 months ago
It is wrong for my Church to suggest that I, a business owner of a Merit Shop is some how wrong, because we do not want to be affiliated with white dominated Unions. We are a small IT Service shop trying to work in the spirit of Saint Isidore and we do not need, nor want to be forced into Union membership. Unions in the early 1930 were Racist organizations that excluded Americans of African and Hispanic origins from their membership. They help limit my grandfather’s business. Today Unions give overwhelmly to Democrats. Democrats overwhelmly support the “new slave trade” of destroying unborn life. Union persuasion certainly isn't working. According to independent polls, most workers aren't interested in union representation, whatever their political alliances. In the private sector nationally, only 7.4 percent belong to a union. Add government employee unions and membership rises to 12 percent. Still, why resort to coercion? Because declines in membership mean declines in dues, which mean declines in union contributions to local, state and national Democratic legislators, which mean declines in union clout. Alex Barron CEO abcISP, Inc.
muhammad ajaz
11 years 1 month ago
The sad reality is that the NLRB election process has been broken by years of employer abuse of the rules. Our research on all election processes begun between 2000 and 2004 found only 65% of cases where a majority of workers signed cards got to hold an election. Employer unfair labor practices reduced the chance of getting to an election by one third. Even when a union won an election only 56% reached a first contract. The basic human right of a worker to join a union, affirmed by Catholic social teaching, is being denied in America today. As Catholic scholars and teachers we have an obligation to speak out and help remedy this injustice. The Employee Free Choice Act is first step in the right direction.
Ronald Pagnucco
11 years 1 month ago
Signing an authorization card IS voting! If a majority of workers are opposed to having a union, they won't have a union! Making employees vote twice is simply a delaying tactic by management. Which democracy makes people vote twice if the people in power don't like the reults of the first vote?
Thomas Farrelly
11 years 1 month ago
Your article, Restoring Worker Choice, deserves an award for twisted logic and plain dishonesty. Having workers vote for or against unions by secret ballot is depicted as a violation of their rights. Taking away the secret ballot is supposed to "...restore rights that workers have lost through the years." The secret ballot allows companies to resist unionization, something you consider deplorable. More to the point, it enables workers to reject it when they believe it is in their interest to do so. Workers apparently are too ignorant to vote their own interests if the arguments for and against unions are presented. If so, why stop at union elections? Why allow these ignorant peons to vote in local and national government elections in secret, without the guiding hand of a union representative, or a Democratic advocate, or perhaps an America editor? Without such assistance and supervision, some might actually vote Republican! Unions have a very mixed record. Especially in the early days, they helped workers achieve a shorter work week, better pay, and better working conditions. On the other hand, they became even more corrupt than companies, sometimes fell into the hands of thugs, and have certainly become associated with the ruination of major US industries, like steel and autos. They have fought relentlessly against education reform. They have been almost totally incapable of protecting against job losses. In any given case, workers should have the right to decide on whether a union will benefit them, without pressure from company managers, union organizers, or Hoffa-like thugs. One thing they do well however, is support the Democratic party. The more unionized workers, the more worker money can be contributed to the candidates favored by Chuck Schumer and Howard Dean - and America magazine.
11 years 1 month ago
When the issue at hand is labor relations, the usually nuanced and thoughtful editorials of AMERICA typically take on the air of a union propaganda leaflet. Your editorial supporting the elimination of a secret ballot to unionize an employer is no exception. You have again trotted out the usual suspects to blame for the decline in union participation in the United States. Nowhere in your list of union busting employers, fifty year old labor laws, and slick law firms is any acknowledgement of what may be the most important contributor to this decline—the loss of trust that rank and file employees have in unions. The right to decide to join to a union belongs exclusively to the employees without intimidation from those with self interest in the outcome at the union hall or the corporate boardroom. Employers and unions have the right to present “their side of the story” to these employees who can then vote in a secret ballot. Bypassing this process to allow unions to organize with no opportunity of response from the owner of the business doesn’t make the employee choice free and makes a mockery of the title of this flawed bill.
11 years 1 month ago
11 years ago
In a perfect world, where those in power respect the rights and dignity of those who are weaker, it is certainly true that using secret elections for workers to express desire for collective bargaining, and cooperative action by workers would be the way to go. However, for anyone who has been part of an organizing campaign on the side of the workers trying to get a union and a contract, there is nothing free about it. Between one-on-one meetings with supervisors, often illegal firings, and employment evaluations that suddenly become negative, to name just a few things, there is nothing free about these NLRB elections. When a company makes a "neutrality pledge" like Cingular did after the merger with AT&T Wireless, one finds that workers are much more willing to form a union and participate in collective bargaining when to do so does not threaten their employment, or appear to be a battle with management that will take years. We all recognize that though the old Soviet constitution guaranteed all citizens the right to practice their faith, if a citizen did do so, he or she would suffer greatly for exercising this right. For those who wish to exercise their constitutional rights of association, and their employment rights guaranteed in the NLR Act, under the present system, they must be ready to suffer greatly, endure a difficult and harsh fight, and possibly lose their job, and their economic livelihood. For more than thirty years, the labor problem in this country has not been big unions pushing around their members, but big management denying the rights of workers, to the point of closing their facilities (see WalMart in Canada) and doing everything to prevent their workers from having collective bargaining rights. The Employees Free Choice Act partially addresses the power imbalance.
11 years ago
Re: Editorial on "Restoring Worker Choice" As an empolyer (President) in a Catholic Eldercare ministry with more than 800 employees who belong to one of four unions, I have experienced it all when it comes to union organizing drives but have never initiated or allowed union bisting efforts. I firmly beleive that such tactics are contrary to Catholic social teaching and I fully support the employees right to chose. On the other hand, with one exception, we have always insisted on a secret ballot election because in each case we beleived that there were employees who were intimidated into signing cards. Some employees share with their supervisors their experiences of coercian and threats by their peers during campaigns, and to avoid trouble, they agree to sign. I cannot comprehend the posture that the editors have taken in this regard. I hope you will provide some balance to your editiorial. The accusations that it contains sound too much like the language of the paid professional organizers whose job it it to malign "management".
9 years 7 months ago
Yes is it Catholic social teaching that individuals should have an enforcer staring over their shoulder when they vote their private preference? Is it free choice when the majority can vote to take away your choice? Well, the Catholic Church has been authoritarian from Day ONe and tries to make up for its past support of Fascism by supporting Communist style 'choice' in the present. Unions had their time and place but no matter what politicians may say to butter them up, the blue collar worker's days are numbered. Unable to compete with offshore peasants in part as a result of union pig-headedness and in part as a result of fallacious free trade arguments promoted by economists he must inevitably wind up flipping burgers or typing in data with the other girls. Enjoy your corn beef and cabbage while it lasts, lads.


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