Union Schemes

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Workers, Be Wary

by John R. Lott, Jr. by John R. Lott, Jr.

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Would you like elections without secret ballots? To most Americans, the notion is absurd. But, if Barack Obama becomes president, secret ballots seem destined to end for at least one type of election: union certifications.

The reasons for secret ballots are obvious. Not everyone feels comfortable making his or her political positions public; many would rather vote without fear of offending or angering someone else. Secret balloting essentially ended an old abuse, vote buying, in US elections.

Yet Obama promises to sign into law the so-called Employee Free Choice Act — which would end secret-ballot elections when it comes to unionization of workplaces.

Unionization is now a two-step process: When 50 percent of workers in a company sign statements requesting a unionization vote, that merely sets up a second stage, where workers vote by secret ballot on whether to unionize. Under the "card-check" system, however, unionization would be certified as soon as half the workers had signed cards stating that they favor union representation.

In other words, a worker can now placate union supporters by signing a statement saying he wants a union, but then vote the other way when protected by the secrecy of the voting booth.

Unions now win about 60 percent of certification elections. The rules change would not only make that 100 percent — adding 500-plus new unionized shops a year — but also ensure that unions seek many more certifications. You can see why the AFL-CIO calls the Employee Free Choice Act its "million-member mobilization."

Unions are desperate to increase membership, which has been falling for decades — from 35 percent of the private-sector workforce in the 1950s to 8.2 percent in 2007.

Big Labor is making an all-out push to get this passed, having budgeted $360 million on this year’s election, $200 million more than in 2004. The Service Employees International Union alone is spending $75 million this year — and committed to making 10 million phone calls to Congress early next year to ensure the bill gets enacted.

Obama claims that strengthening unions is good because unions will "lift up the middle-class in this country once more." If so, why are these very people voting against unions?

In fact, unionization virtually always raises some workers’ pay at the expense of others. (In particular, companies typically have to compensate for the higher payroll costs by using fewer employees.) They also equalize wages within jobs — preventing harder working, more productive employees from earning more than less productive ones.

And those aren’t the only problems. Protecting teachers unions from competition comes at the expense of students. Protecting workers from trade competition comes at the expense of customers and even other workers. (If you protect steel workers from competition, for example, the price of US-made cars rises relative to foreign-made ones.)

Sen. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, has broken with his own party over card-check. In an ad opposing the bill, he says, "It is hard to believe that any politician would agree to a law denying millions of employees a right to a private vote." McGovern is so concerned that he has let the ad be targeted against Democrats nationally as well as in seven states with close Senate races.

Obama may feel that card-check will help US workers, or he may simply believe he needs to reward Big Labor for its support. Either way, ending secret-ballot union votes is guaranteed to make the country — and most workers — poorer.

This article originally appeared in the New York Post.

John Lott [send him mail] is the author of Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don’t and The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).

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