June 4 2009
The Obama administration and its Democrat congressional leaders choose their words carefully. The "war on terror"-viewed as a relic of a war-hungry Bush administration-has been replaced with the bureaucratic phrase "overseas contingency operations." Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security has been urged not to talk about potential "terrorist attacks"; rather, the new expression du jour is "man-caused disaster."
Now Congress has manufactured a title for legislation intended to change the rules governing union elections that's downright deceptive. The Employee Free Choice Act would do just the opposite of what its name implies. Rather than giving workers the choice to unionize freely, EFCA-or "card check"-is an attempt to impose no-vote unionizing on America's workers.
It's not unusual for political leaders to organize, or "frame," complicated policy ideas like terrorism, tax policy, or even union reform laws in language that makes it easier for the public to understand and form opinions. In fact, there's an entire literature in political science devoted to framing effects.
And this idea of using issue frames to communicate an idea has generated popular attention as well. On the Right, celebrity pollster Frank Luntz's recent book Words That Work offers suggestions for influencing public opinion through the careful selection of different words and phrases. On the left, Berkeley linguist George Lakoff is a well-known critic of conservatives, who he claims have been more successful at using language to generate public support for policy prescriptions.
Well, it looks like Democrats have been doing their homework. The phrase "Employee Free Choice Act" must poll really well; unfortunately for the public, it has no relation to the content of the bill. Instead of a private vote in an election supervised by the federal government's National Labor Relations Board, like we've had since 1947, under a "card check" regime, workers would be forced to take a public position on the union contract. That means union officials, coworkers, and employers could pressure workers and check up on their vote. Unionization would be recognized when a simple majority of workers publicly sign a card in favor of unionization.
The secret ballot, which was first used in Australia in the 1850s, made its way to the United States in the late 19th century. It's sometimes referred to as the Massachusetts ballot, in honor of the first state to try this private method of voting in 1884. For more than a century, the secret ballot has helped to ensure free and fair elections.
It was liberal progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who originally pushed hardest for this good-government reform, but today, the political left is abandoning the notion of a secret ballot to support a beleaguered political ally.
And although EFCA supporters frame the legislation as a boon to workers, its principle effect is to strip workers of their right to a legitimate and fair election-the kind that we rely on in every other area of civil society from electing our class president to the president of the United States.
The reason why secret ballots are used in just about all elections is obvious: Voting in private curbs political corruption and intimidation tactics that once characterized elections in this country. It's no surprise that nearly 90 percent of the public supports a federally supervised, secret-ballot election for unionization votes.
This doesn't mean the public is anti-union. Labor unions have served a vital role in the country's economic and social history for more than a century, allowing workers to negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions through collective bargaining. In fact, according to a survey taken last September, 74 percent of the country holds a favorable view of unions.
But while the public respects the role of unions, it also recognizes that workers ought to have the right not to unionize. And poll numbers also show that many workers have made that decision. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 9 percent of nonunion employees would like to join a union.
Undoubtedly this frustrates union bosses and their political allies. There's no question that demographic changes coupled with the new global marketplace and a decline in domestic manufacturing has delivered a blow to union membership. But that should not give unions-or Congress-the right to eliminate a basic democratic institution and open the door for the intimidation of workers caught up in a union campaign.
The name "Employee Free Choice Act" may sound appealing, but it's time the public looks beyond the packaging and sees what this bill is all about.