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December 03, 2008

Good News About Card Check

Attention, white upper-middle class liberal blogistas: there is NOTHING more important during the Obama administration than passing card check.

What about an economic stimulus package? And getting out of Iraq? And health care? And global warming? Aren't they more important?


Nothing is more important than card check because card check has the possibility to truly change the face of American politics. Canada isn't Canada because their elites are so much nicer than ours. It's Canada because 50% 30% of the labor force is unionized, compared to about 10% here. And their union density is that high (in part) because they have half of Canada has card check. Anything approaching that level of union density here would give progressives the kind of power we currently can only dream about. (CORRECTION: According to William Greider's book Who Will Tell the People, Canadian union density was almost 40% in the early nineties. However, it's now fallen to 30%. Meanwhile, the union certification process in Canada has also been changing: "In the last 25 years, a major change has occurred in the way unions are recognised in Canada. In 1976, every jurisdiction in Canada used card check. Today, more than 50% of the Canadian labour force is covered by mandatory vote legislation...")

Moreover, even if the day comes when all our desired legislation on everything else is passed, it will immediately come under attack. That will be the beginning of the fight, not the end. And without card check any victories will be swiftly eroded, and before long it will be like they never happened. With card check, we'll be able to hold onto the victories and build on them.

That's why it's encouraging that the Obama transition has firmly restated their commitment to passing card check. Of course, they'll weasel out of this if they possibly can. But that's why it's important to pay attention to this and scream about it as loudly as possible.

NOW: Sign up with the Employee Free Choice Act campaign. Then, watch this hilariously bad anti-card check filmmaking from the American Hotel & Lodging Association:

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at December 3, 2008 12:06 PM

"Free Choice Act" to force people to join unions.

Why not call it the "Screw Employee Free Choice Act" instead? More accurate you have to admit.

Posted by: P D at December 3, 2008 12:51 PM

Why not call it the "Screw Employee Free Choice Act" instead?

Yes...if only we could return to the late 19th century, where employees breathed the free air and were free to have their limbs mangled by machinery with no compensation and freely began working in the mill at age six!

Free! Free! Free!

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 3, 2008 01:08 PM

Does this mean that Obama is a Woody Guthrie Union kinda guy or a Jimmy Hoffa Union kinda guy?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at December 3, 2008 01:11 PM

Suppose I sign an affidavit saying I want a union. And 51% of my co-workers do, too. Why shouldn't we get a union?

Posted by: SteveB at December 3, 2008 01:12 PM

Suppose I sign an affidavit saying I want a union. And 51% of my co-workers do, too. Why shouldn't we get a union?

What's wrong with the current scheme requiring a formal vote?

Posted by: P D at December 3, 2008 01:15 PM

Also, I don't get how the hispanic woman represented in the video as a "victim of card-check" can be a "victim" of something we don't have yet. If her co-workers were signing cards to request an election (the way the system works now), then why didn't the wonderful secret-ballot process save her from the terrible fate of having to be represented by a union? After all, they didn't really want a union, they were just pressured into signing the cards by paid union goons, right?

Posted by: SteveB at December 3, 2008 01:16 PM

excellent post jonathan, agree 100%.

Posted by: petey at December 3, 2008 01:19 PM

If one looks at history, a coupla kegs of powder or a few well timed lynchings advance the expansion of unions faster than anything else.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at December 3, 2008 01:20 PM

What's wrong with the current scheme requiring a formal vote?

This is an excellent question, and I hope SteveB will have the honesty and integrity to give PD an answer. After all, the fact that 50% of non-union workers want to join a union, and yet can't, indicates the system is working perfectly. Thus it is incumbent upon opponents of the current scheme to explain why it should be changed.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 3, 2008 01:21 PM

I'm a bit confused. Is the problem that, under the current system, only the employer can call for an election, and so by postponing this indefinitely effectively prevents unionization? And this bill would allow for workers to unionize without a formal, secret-ballot election, but by simply accumulating enough signed cards for a 51% majority?

How are signed cards better than a secret ballot? I must be misunderstanding this, because it seems possible to fix the root problem--employer control of the process--without removing this check on manipulation.

What am I missing? Thanks in advance.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at December 3, 2008 02:38 PM

Mike of Angle,

I plead the seventh, which is the constitutional amendment that allows you to refuse to answer if you are too sleepy. However, I will respond when I'm more energized later today. In the meantime, anyone who wants should jump in.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 3, 2008 03:07 PM


I was curious about that too.

Part of the problem is the increased amount of time that an election gives employers to intimidate workers and engage in unfair labor practices. Empirically card-check has significantly higher rates of success than the election process. In British Colombia elections were mandatory from 1983-1993, during that period unionizing success rates dropped 20% and returned to their previous levels in 1993.

Also a study of organizing drives found that "card check agreements reduced management campaigning, as well as the use of illegal tactics such as discharges and promises of benefits, and also substantially increased the union recognition rate."

This combined with increased penalties for unfair labor practices would seem to reduce employer control of the process.

Posted by: bpot at December 3, 2008 03:09 PM

I think the confusion regarding employers calling for elections is that under current law employers can call for elections to decertify (i.e., remove) a union when membership falls below 10 percent.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at December 3, 2008 03:31 PM

Anyone else remember the "Strike" chapter of Last Exit to Brooklyn? It's the best depiction of union/management collusion/corruption ever. It's incredible.

I dunno-I'm all in favor of workers organizing for their rights. But I hate coersive vanguards as much as I hate bosses.

Posted by: Seth at December 3, 2008 03:42 PM

Mike - basically the problem is that the employers control the workplace and the long time between the when a union asks for an election (because they have had > 30% cards signed) and the actual election gives the employers time to whittle down union support. The law allows the employer to put up anti-union flyers, etc., in the workplace, hold meetings, etc. Organizers and pro-union workers are much more restricted. Furthermore since the Reagan era employers have learned that they can do pretty much anything they want - threaten, fire, and intimidate workers to prevent a union winning an election, no matter what the law says, and nothing will be done to punish them. So yes it sounds fair - but since under capitalism we work for little private tyrannies the vote is manipulated.

You can google around about the union election process and find reports and information from the AFL-CIO and others.

Posted by: erik at December 3, 2008 03:46 PM

I'm not certain about the significance of the issue under consideration, but may I gently point out that (a) the percentage of union density in Canada is not as high as stated in this column, being closer to 30% of the paid non-agricultural workforce; and (b) labor law is provincially regulated in Canada (although there are federal sector laws, too, but they apply only to certain federally-regulated industries, such as telecommunications), meaning that the process for becoming certified for collective bargaining varies from province to province.

While it is true that union density in Canada has been significantly higher - for decades - than in the United States, it is not accurate to suggest that the credit (or blame, depending on your POV, heheheh) is attributable solely to the certification process, although it is is definitely true, that on average, Canada's labor laws are "friendlier" to Union organizing than America's laws in this regard. I believe it is generally accepted that numerous factors have contributed to the disparity between union membership levels between the two countries (including differences in Union effectiveness).

However, it is also true to say that trade unionism is facing significant challenges in Canada, for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the erosion in trade unionism's "natural" base, i.e., manufacturing (although, again, it may be true to say that Canadian Unions have been more effective in penetrating non-traditional sectors (e.g., the service sector) and engaging in other innovative practices that have contributed to their ability to maintain higher levels of unionization (not the least of which is mergers between 'rival' unions).

I recognize that the allusion to Canada and Canadian unionism was meant to illustrate a broader point, but by the same token, I'm not certain that what you refer to as "card check" is the panacea you're making it out to be.

Posted by: The Boiling Frog at December 3, 2008 04:20 PM

As maybe the only blogger to have had half a dozen blogs AND a decade as a card carrying union member (United Rubberworkers Local 310, now Steelworkers I think), I have very mixed feelings about card check.

Yes, the lying liars lie about it but no, it's not a magic fix. We'd do almost as well simply to remove the business's right to use card check to decertify unions. The problem isn't in the workplace. Workers know what their problems are.

The problem is with the media's hideously one-sided coverage of labor issues. Why would any sane person want to join a union after all the lies they've been fed about collective bargaining?

We need to empower workers. Empowering unions doesn't help those who can't organize: the self-employed, the transient, the under skilled.

But since that ain't happening, I'll take card check.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at December 3, 2008 05:22 PM

this all feels generic. regional differences, demographic differences, they're so big now. last time we went through such a severe management screwup the manufacturing belt was intact and was a force to behold in the world. now we're facing shallow contraction (by deleveraging and long-term credit tightening) or deep contraction (by increasingly punishing biophysical resource loss) -- both of those are more than a fairly tame labor establishment is prepared to handle?

this bubble bursting is a shot across the bow, it's a blip, when we're in a planetary-scale historic moment people will be talking about thousands of years from now, because it's a change in the life of life itself. unions here need to be fighting for a livable future and a living wage. really need to get out there and fight for a sustainable quality of life. this means taking a much more aggressively green position than the democrats are comfortable with.

Posted by: hapa at December 3, 2008 06:51 PM

How about if we repeal Taft-Hartly?

Posted by: cemmcs at December 3, 2008 09:06 PM

SteveB, reading your comment got me to thinking and now I'm really depressed. We petitioned for an NLRB election to certify a union at an ironworking operation I was at in 1973. I left shortly thereafter but to the best of my knowledge that little scab shop in Ames, Iowa, has still never had a union election. The company had a large unionized plant in Des Moines, and their Ames plant existed solely to spite the union.

The tragic thing is that labor has lost bargaining power every year since '73. I cannot imagine how impotent union negotiators must feel at the bargaining table today.

In a rational marketplace union goods would have a bigger share of the market simply because they were union goods. But you can't compete when the big dogs are all racing towards the bottom, shortcutting safety and every other corner. IF we had some OSHA inspectors who were allowed to their jobs, IF the Dept of Labor audited problem employers and caught them shorting their workers, IF the INS would shut down outfits like Agriprocessors in Postville more often, IF, IF.

It's not just the unions that have been shafted by the corporatists. All the ethical business leaders have been shut out of the mix as well. It's enough to make you dig out your Dead Kennedy albums and start plotting on how best to kill the rich.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at December 3, 2008 09:46 PM

Corporations are licenced by the state. If you want the limited liability of a corporation (this is known as a subsidy for the stupid impaired)then they should have to collectively bargain with their employees.

People tend to forget that labor peace is, per the Wagner Act, in the national interest and collective bargaining is thereby encouraged. To the best of my knowledge, the Act has not been repealed (well, maybe on a de facto basis).

The Employee Free Choise Act is a necessary start. So is the repeal of Taft-Hartly.

Posted by: bobbyp at December 3, 2008 10:24 PM

Ah, got to get rid of that pesky secret ballot, yes?

I grew up in Cleveland. People will sign whatever the goons who know their address will tell them to sign. Think "The Sopranos".

Posted by: Fritz at December 3, 2008 10:34 PM

What's wrong with the current scheme requiring a formal vote?

I dunno. Decertification can currently take place using card check--no secret election required. But apparently you're not outraged about that. Pity.

Posted by: bobbyp at December 3, 2008 10:34 PM

I grew up in Cleveland. People will sign whatever the goons who know their address will tell them to sign. Think "The Sopranos".

Man, if I had a nickel for every time I've heard this one...

Once I was helping to organize a teacher's local and a guy told me he wouldn't sign the card because he was worried about "mafia influence." Yeah, because the American Federation of Teachers is so mobbed up.

So the 50% of U.S. workers who want a union but can't get one have to continue to be deprived of union representation because 1% of the union card-checks might be mob-influenced? Can you seriously tell me that it would be more than 1%?

And do we really have no other way of dealing with the problem of mafia influence in unions? Didn't we used to have something called the "FBI" that was supposed to be working on this?

Posted by: SteveB at December 3, 2008 10:57 PM

Sure, SteveB, everything you say seems to make "sense" to those who haven't figured out your nefarious pro-organized crime agenda. But let's take a step back a minute and look at the big picture: when union density was at its highest in the fifties and sixties, Cleveland was a burned out hellhole—just like Detroit at the same time—with zero middle class to speak of. Since then, as unions have been decisively broken, Cleveland has become a veritable paradise on earth, full of good jobs at good wages that have built a thriving community.

Case closed, my friend.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 3, 2008 11:11 PM

Steve, doesn't have to be Mafia. Just needs to be people who are willing to threaten your family or trash your property if you don't sign a card.

And, yes, Steve, I am claiming that a few percent of workers can persuade 50% of workers to sign cards. I mean, what's the downside to signing a card? When the downside of not signing is unknown but could be substantial.

Maybe things are politer where you live. They are a lot politer where I live now (Seattle environs). They were definitely not that polite in Cleveland.

Posted by: Fritz at December 3, 2008 11:13 PM

Jonathan, Cleveland is an empty shell because industry was driven out. But at least the river is clean. None of that nasty pollution from steel production and manufacturing.

Posted by: Fritz at December 3, 2008 11:18 PM

Oh, and if you guys want to crank up manufacturing unions, the first thing you need to do is create an environment that allows large manufacturing in this country.

Get the US out of WTO and NAFTA. Deal with the ensuing trade wars. And then crank up some tariffs. And then deal with the fallout of retaliatory tariffs. Then there might be manufacturing jobs to unionize.

Posted by: Fritz at December 3, 2008 11:27 PM

Speaking of wikipedia, someone with more knowledge and energy than I might have a look at their card check entry, which I think was written by the American Monocle, Top Hat and Cigar Association.

Posted by: Doctorb at December 4, 2008 01:01 AM

In theory, the union organizers can be beefy eye-ties who stand behind you all "how you doin'" and showing up at your house all "it would be a shame if dis house was to boin down heh heh heh" but of course if they were going to do that they might as well run a protection racket instead, because that would be just as illegal and they would be prosecuted by the FBI.

Meanwhile they can't threaten you with the union's power to deprive employees of their livelihood and to control their pay, hours and working conditions, and the union organizers don't have pretty much total access to employees at all times throughout the working day. Which are all things that your boss *can* do, along with having mandatory anti-union meetings, interrogating workers about their support of a union, threatening to close the plant, etc.

Posted by: Doctorb at December 4, 2008 01:17 AM

What about ... global warming? Aren't they more important? NO.

And this, my fellow lefties, is why the human race goes extinct within the next century or so.

Posted by: strasmangelo jones at December 4, 2008 09:30 AM

"An injury to one is an injury to all." Went to a union meeting last night at the longshoremen's hall in San Francisco (our union rents it for our meetings). There's a big picture of Harry Bridges on the wall.

You can follow the American working class by the percentage of union membership.

By the way, the elder Jimmy Hoffa was quite cozy with the Republicans. PATCO endorsed Reagan. You get what you pay for.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at December 4, 2008 09:46 AM
And this, my fellow lefties, is why the human race goes extinct within the next century or so.

Without far greater levels of unionization, it doesn't matter how much we prioritize global warming. As I said, we might pass a law, but its effectiveness will be quickly undermined and eventually destroyed.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 4, 2008 10:05 AM

Jonathan, what in the world do unions have to do with transforming our current, cannibalistic economic system - which reigns over thoroughly-unionized Canada and Europe - into a sane and sustainable one? Our current economic assumptions demand a constant increase in consumption to fuel a constant increase in production, a pattern which is simply incompatible with the finite resources of our finite planet. Labor and capital work hand in glove in this suicidal scheme, which is why unions have historically been hostile to environmental legislation - the short-term interests of loggers, miners and factory workers have always outweighed the long-term interests of the human species.

I'm all for card check, but for fuck's sake, people, let's get our priorities straight. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rate, we're looking at an apocalyptic increase in heat by the end of this century, and possibly the largest mass extinction since the Permian period. Nothing is bigger than the environment right now - nothing. We're facing multiple, interconnected ecological catastrophes brought on by human activity, from global warming to ocean acidification to water scarcity to soil depletion to mass extinction, and no major national politician in the United States has come close to proposing the kinds of policy changes we'd need to address them.

Posted by: strasmangelo jones at December 4, 2008 10:28 AM

Jonathan Schwarz: Does that mean WE must unionze the entire planet to stop global climate change?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at December 4, 2008 10:46 AM

SJ, yes, but how do you organize people for any cause - environmental as well? The workplace is where people are and where (collectively) they have the leverage, the power.

Posted by: abb1 at December 4, 2008 11:20 AM


Europe and Canada are not ecotopias, but they're significantly ahead of the US on environmental issues. That's because they're more democratic countries. And that's largely because they're more unionized.

You might be correct that unions don't have it in them to do what's necessary. But if so, then no other form of organization, now in existence or on the horizon, will either.

If we're going to survive, it's going to be because unions help make the US and the rest of the world more democratic—in part by their own activities and culture, and in part by lending support to other social movements, as happened with unions and the civil rights movement.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 4, 2008 11:27 AM

An increase in CO2 levels will *not* lead to the extinction of the human race in a century.

If you look in the fossil record, you will find that the Earth did quite well with CO2 levels double and triple what they are now. The CO2 levels dropped dramatically when the Indian subcontinent successfully plowed into Asia. This dried up the subduction volcanoes in the Deccan Traps and exposed a huge amount of rock to rapid weathering (which soaks up CO2) in the newly-created mountain ranges. This dramatic CO2 plunge iced over Antarctica.

Posted by: Fritz at December 4, 2008 11:59 AM

"the Earth did quite well with CO2 levels double and triple what they are now"

Of course, that was the Earth sans modern humans. Maybe it was good enough for Plesiadapis, but the order has moved on a bit since the early Eocene.

Posted by: buermann at December 4, 2008 01:31 PM

John, these are all good points, but I see you're studiously avoiding Fritz's compelling arguments about subduction volcanoes in the Deccan Traps.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 4, 2008 01:40 PM

No way, man, I'm a huge fan of the Deccan Traps. They're even better than the Fatima Mansions. I was just about to head to the store to pick up their new CD.

Posted by: John Caruso at December 4, 2008 01:54 PM

...but seriously, yes. We have to hope the non-crazy billionaires have the power to get things moving, and then we can build up organized people strength along the way to keep it going.

However, I do think it's EXTREMELY important for activists who are most concerned about US foreign policy or global warming—which generally means those with more money—to understand that most people are not going to go along with them unless they they show they care as much about the biggest problems of most Americans here and now. Without that, they will rarely win on their favored issues, and even when they do it will quickly be washed away.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 4, 2008 01:56 PM

It's certainly a good thing that you progressives made your support for The Chosen One contingent on his support for EFCA. Now the Obama administration knows that there will be electoral consequences if they don't produce.

What's that? You didn't make any demands? You just threw your votes away for a few nice words and a smile?

Oh. Well. You're fucked, then.

Posted by: AlanSmithee at December 4, 2008 02:22 PM

JS: you're skirting the edges of accusing the general population of "disaster capitalism: home edition," i.e., blackmail? of their own grandchildren? our economics need to deliver to goods on both axes and all timeframes, or they're no good. really if getting paid now and securing a good living in the future have to happen in that sequence then:

1. no recession would ever end.

2. nobody would ever exercise or stop smoking.

3. there would be no babies. sex is good but not THAT good.

see what i'm saying.

Posted by: hapa at December 4, 2008 02:33 PM

Jeezus, this sure turned into a chat room.

Fwiw, secret ballots are bullshit. The Firestone plant I worked at had 1,900 union members (you had to join in Iowa) and if we'd had to revote the union we could have told you in advance nearly all the workers who would have voted against it. When you work shoulder to shoulder with folks in an assembly line environment, you know who's glad to be in the union and who just wants to bitch about dues. In smaller workplaces it would be even easier to tell the sides apart.

There is no point in stealing an election if you're on the union side. A union is only as good as its members, and if you coerce people into joining, your union won't be worth crap.

I've been overly critical about the importance of card check but reading all these comments I do have to wonder how many of you folks have ever been in a trades or industrial union and no your stupid summer construction job doesn't count.

Posted by: Mark Gisleson at December 4, 2008 03:33 PM progressives made your support for The Chosen One contingent on his support for EFCA.

But how do you make your support contingent on anything? Once elected he can do whatever he wants, there is no mechanism to enforce any promises he made during the campaign.

Posted by: abb1 at December 4, 2008 03:48 PM

What's that? You didn't make any demands? You just threw your votes away for a few nice words and a smile?

I didn't vote for him, but your point's well taken. The slogan of the netroots - "more and better Democrats" - has always been an empty one, since no one in that electoral-politics-obsessed movement ever bothered to define what "better" means - or, for that matter, how bad a given Democrat could get before they lost their money and votes.

Posted by: strasmangelo jones at December 4, 2008 03:48 PM

@mark gisleson:

I do have to wonder how many of you folks have ever been in a trades or industrial union

no you don't. the stats are available. it's unlikely that most or many here have, especially by politics. but,

this sure turned into a chat room.

the starting post makes a pretty wide-ranging argument. you wanting to narrow it down to "only things relating to unions" is sort of the point of the blue-green part of this conversation. the future is seriously unstable. that's of great concern to american workers. if it isn't of great concern to american unions, WTF is wrong with them.

Posted by: hapa at December 4, 2008 04:32 PM

Unionization worked fine after WWII when the whole rest of the world had seen its factories bombed to dust and there was no competition. Once there started being a little more competition again, many poorly unionized businesses started to crumble.

I hope they do, or else they take a better view of modernization. The notion that de-unionization will take us back to "The Jungle" type conditions is ludicrous. The modern court system can prevent threats to physical safety as well as a union can (if the workers are here legally.) 19th century businesses would be sued out of existence in a modern heartbeat. And employers have the right to charge what wages they want because IT'S THEIR COMPANY.

I'd rather live in the 21st century with modern technology than in the 1950s in a unionized factory. How do we count that when discussing 'real wages?'

It seems like some unions take the view that they've been a guest in a house long enough, they must own the place. What's most galling is how unions try to claim that extra wages for union workers helps non-union workers outside the company. The only thing that significantly raises the average real wage nationwide over time is increases in efficiency, where more work is done by fewer people. Union mandated decreases in efficiency have the opposite effect. Raising the minimum wage partly leads to inflation and partly eliminates those jobs which are no longer cost effective at the new higher wage. (Though politicians on both sides of the aisle seem happy to let immigrants come in to do the work that it's not illegal for an American to do at a cost effective wage.)

The GM union's opposition to increased mechanization (forbidding workers made redundant by increases in efficiency to be layed off) is enough to make me oppose unions in general unless the union can prove that they're not opposed to their host business actually being competitive in the marketplace.

If Card Check strengthens union power I hope it crashes and burns. I'm open to rational arguments, but noone's said a rational thing yet to persuade me to think other than what I do.

Posted by: Ryan W. at December 7, 2008 02:05 AM

And employers have the right to charge what wages they want because IT'S THEIR COMPANY.

I'm not sure what that means, but wouldn't the phrase "and the labor has the right to charge what wages they want because IT'S THEIR LABOR" make exactly as much sense?

Posted by: abb1 at December 7, 2008 05:39 AM

Union mandated decreases in efficiency have the opposite effect.

Also, business mandated decreases in efficiency have the opposite effect. An oil company buying and shelving some new revolutionary battery technology causes more drastic decrease in efficiency than all the unions in the world combined.

Raising the minimum wage partly leads to inflation and partly eliminates those jobs which are no longer cost effective at the new higher wage.

And even if it was true, so what? Raising the minimum wage will certainly create some new jobs, while a momentary spike in inflation (on certain things only) is not the end of the world.

Is it you position that raising the minimum wage has no positive aspects whatsoever? Just curious.

Posted by: abb1 at December 7, 2008 06:00 AM