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Union-Busting Legislation Plays on Public Ignorance

There’s more anti-progressive fallout from Tuesday’s election: A worker’s right to form a union was made more difficult in four separate ballot measures. Decisions in Arizona, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah shut the door on state-level efforts to use a process of labor organizing called ‘card check’—an open balloting system that has been one of the key legislative goals for labor groups in recent years.

The financial backers of the anti-union measures were big business heavyweights, preemptively trying to sabotage the labor union-backed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a piece of legislation pending in Congress that would make organizing by card check easier. 

In Arizona and Utah, an organization called Save Our Secret Ballot (SOSB) raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, gaining support from Pat Toomey of Club For Growth, the president of the Arizona Mining Association, and a bevy of conservative state Attorneys General. Here’s a link to Arizona’s Notifications of Contributions to Ballot Measure Committees—it shows over 36 separate contributions by SOSB over a span of 18 months nearing $800,000. Service Employees International Union contributed $10,000.

The pro-union American Rights at Work, which supports EFCA and card check, weighs in on the state ballot measures in an e-mail:

“Insidiously passed off to voters as worker protection, these initiatives were promoted and bankrolled by notoriously anti-worker groups like Save Our Secret Ballot and Americans for Prosperity…. The bottom line is that they were a distraction at a time when the focus of our elected officials should have been jobs and the economy.”

Opponents of card check claim the process is undemocratic and encourages labor union intimidation. Too often that explanation works—most American voters associate progressive voting rights with a ‘secret balloting’ system, which allows workers to anonymously cast a vote for or against unionization. SOSB claims that “without the ability to vote secretly, individual political freedom will decline and be subject to threats and intimidation by those who want voters to pursue a specific course of action or ideology.” But that’s mostly apocryphal.

The collective bargaining process does not work like electoral elections, where individuals head to the polls as citizens and vote independently. In trying to organize a union, threats of job dismissal are rampant. More crucially, whereas the current standard of ‘secret balloting’ considers only votes cast, card check gauges the attitudes of the entire work force. Think about it, if an employer knows ahead of time which of its employees is voting, that ups the ante to use tactics to force a no vote.

And, under the ‘secret balloting’ approach, the voting process is dragged out over a series of steps, instead of one simple expression to form a collective bargaining unit, as the case would be with card check. Under the current standard, at least 30 percent of the work force must petition the National Labor Relations Board for the right to unionize. Once the NLRB reviews the votes, a secret ballot follows.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management study brings to light how hard it is for a union to be created even with the majority of workers on board. Looking through 22,000 campaigns to unionize between 1999 and 2004, the authors of the study found that a union was formed and recognized by the employer only 56 percent of the time, even with the majority of the workers vying for such a contractual relationship.

Unfortunately proposed laws like EFCA are a bit too arcane for the average citizen to digest. Only about 12 percent of the workforce belongs to a union, down from 20 percent in 1983, and down from a third of the workforce in the 1950s. That means the number of people who can describe the activity of a union has gone down as well.

Unions once protected wages and assured the trained and eager a middle class lifestyle. Even businesses that weren’t bound to collective bargaining agreements pegged their wages to union-job salaries, just to compete for talent. Today it seems that sort of salary matching occurs at the top of the economic ladder only, where compensation boards award senior executives unimaginable wealth just to keep up with the joneses.

I’d like to think there’s a sliver lining somewhere in this—a public that remembers how good they had it not even 25 years ago and demands a return to the institutions that guaranteed modest luxury and a reliable retirement. Maybe it’s the job of the progressive today to refresh the memories of the jaded. 

Mikhail Zinshteyn is a staff writer for Campus Progress. You can e-mail him at

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