Obama's Coming Battle Over Union Elections

Last Updated Nov 28, 2008 9:16 AM EST

Battles lines are already being drawn between President-elect Barack Obama and C-Suites. The drumbeat is going out, as if on cue, to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for labor unions to organize companies.

The EFCA passed the House of Representatives last year but got bogged down in a filibuster. A new, more Democratic Congress will consider it anew and Obama has vowed to get it passed in the first 100 days of his administration.

Anti-union and right wing factions throughout the country are sounding the clarion call that the bill would could cost companies millions of dollars, lead to intimidation of its workforces and give hated and sagging unions new power.
Traditionally, if workers in a firm wanted to organize a bargaining unit, they would hold a secret ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The new law would forego the secret ballot and let workers decide for and against organizing by signing check off cards.

The anti-EFCA campaign makes the rather shrill point that the law would bring a host of expensive fines including one that could charge companies $20,000 per worker if the firm makes an "improper" statement to its workforce. One conservative columnist for my hometown newspaper frets that EFCA would allow blue collar bullies to force workers to sign cards. Calls are out to educate executives and directors, to audit companies to see how union-vulnerable they are and to communicate the firms' union "philosophies" now.

A few problems with the logic here. Management likes secret ballots because it gives them a focal point to put their own kind of pressure on their workers not to unionize. It is much harder to do so with signing cards because they are so diffuse.

As for my hometown columnist, his hyperventilating is a bit ingenuous. I know his company and when an employee is hired he or she must sign a form stating they they understand that the company's "philosophy" is to be union-free. Tell, me, isn't that intimidation?

The only good I see in the anti-EFCA movement is that if firms actually do honest audits of their work forces, they may spotlight problems that, if resolved, could make the workers happier and more productive and the firm more profitable.

My personal view is that unions aren't always necessary but if a firm is well-run and treats its workers in a good way, they have nothing to fear from an official, NLRB bargaining unit.