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August 18, 2008

what do “free choice” and “bipartisan” mean?

Filed under: Schenectady Synecdoche,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 4:52 pm

It’s not designated HR 1984, but the so-called Employee Free Choice Act (HR 800, S. 1041, 110th Congress) sure does have an aura of Orwellian rhetoric about it.

In his “The View from Here” column for the Schenectady Sunday Gazette, yesterday, Word Watcher and Hypocrisy Hound Carl Strock says he likes the name given to HR 800, because it “is almost exactly the opposite of the true purpose of the bill.” (“Employee fee choice? Not exactly,” Aug. 17, 2008). Although his columns are not available at the Gazette‘s free website, Carl often summarizes them at his Strock Freestyle weblog, and he did just that in a posting called “Employee Free Choice?.” In the post, Carl asks:

. . StrockCarl . . If you’re a labor union and you lose 40 percent of the elections in which workers vote whether or not to have you represent them. And further, if you find it relatively easy to get unorganized workers to sign cards saying they want you to represent them, especially when you stand right over them and watch them sign what do you do?

He replies: “The answer is obvious: You promote a federal law to forbid elections and to accept signed cards instead.” Then, Carl wonders “And what do you name the proposed law?”:

That’s easy too. You don’t name it the “Election Suppression Act,” or, the “Strong-Arm Sign-Up Act.” You name it the “Employee Free Choice Act,” as any student of George Orwell could tell you.”

The bill has passed in the House, but seems stalled now in the Senate. When you see that all sorts of Democratic good-guys, including Barack Obama, are supporting EFCA, you might think that Carl Strock has surely gotten it wrong. However, here’s how Thomas at The Library of Congress summarizes HR 800:

“Amends the National Labor Relations Act to require the National Labor Relations Board to certify a bargaining representative without directing an election if a majority of the bargaining unit employees have authorized designation of the representative (card-check) and there is no other individual or labor organization currently certified or recognized as the exclusive representative of any of the employees in the unit.”

. . . The AFL/CIO is the primary proponent — and probably named — EFCA, and it argues that The Employee Free Choice Act would “level the playing field for workers and employers and help rebuild America’s middle class.” Indeed, the Labor Council says:

“It would restore workers’ freedom to choose a union by:

* Establishing stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union and during first-contract negotiations.
* Providing mediation and arbitration for first-contract disputes.
* Allowing employees to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation.”

To be honest, the first two provisions above do seem like fairly benign ways to achieve the goal of giving workers Freedom to Choose. But, Carl Strock is absolutely correct when he says in his column that “you don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to see what the result will be,” when you permit “signing a card handed to you by a possibly pushy or intimidating organizer” to count just as much as a secret ballot. As an example, Strock tells of a local experience back in 2001, when a union seeking to organize the warehouse workers at the regional Price Chopper grocery chain:

“readily got the approximately 225 signatures required to force an election, but by secret ballot only some 130 workers voted in favor of unionizing.”

What the unions don’t tell you, according to Strock, is that they already win about 60 percent of their organizing elections. Taking away the secret ballot in the hot-house atmosphere of an organizing campaign seems like a very un-American way to ensure Free Choice, although it surely will increase the win-loss stats of Big Labor. Indeed, when asked if he would “be outraged” if the situation were reversed and employers could defeat a union organizing drive by getting workers to sign no-union cards, Frank Natalie (President of Schenectady’s AFL-CIO affiliate), admitted, “Yes, I would.”

dem donkey gray . . . .. bipartisan? . . . rep elephant gray

It’s no secret that Big Labor is an important part of the base of the Democratic Party. But, the AFL-CIO boasts that EFCA is “supported by a bipartisan coalition in Congress.” Being a curious guy, I clicked through to see their lists of the bill’s co-sponsors. There are over 200 co-sponsors in the House, but going down the alphabetical list, I didn’t hit a Republican name until I got to #72. Fossella, Vito (R-NY-13), and the handful of additional GOP sponsors were clustered in a few Blue states with strong unions. On the list of 47 Senate co-sponsors, there were no Republicans, with the only non-Democratic sponsors being the two “Independents,” Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders.

The abuse of the word “bipartisan” had long been a pet peeve of mine. For me — and for Merriam-Webster, and Wordsmyth, and OneLook Dictionary — the adjective “bipartisan” means

  • supported by both sides, and
  • more specifically, “composed of, representing, or supported by two parties or factions, esp. two political parties.”

Sure, as the American Heritage Dictionary states, bipartisan means “supported by members of two parties,” but a true “bipartisan solution” requires actual support by both major parties, not overwhelming support by one, with a couple of the other party’s outliers somehow persuaded to go along.

Clearly, the Employee Free Choice Act is not bipartisan in any meaningful (honest) sense of the word. It is a creature of the Democratic Party, doing obeisance to Big Labor in an election season. Unless somehow persuaded that Strock’s analysis and my own are wrong, it is exactly the kind of wrong-headed issue that I would love to see Barack Obama oppose as a matter of principle — perhaps while supporting the bill’s other provisions. Of course, neither Carl nor I just dropped out of the clouds yesterday, so we’re not holding our breath. Nor, I bet, is George Orwell.

my chrysanthemum
faces the direction
she chooses

a hard choice–
round charcoal, nuggets
or white

… by Kobayashi Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue




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