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Gary Shapiro

Gary Shapiro

Posted April 9, 2009 | 11:30 AM (EST)

Card Check Dilemma: How Can Well-Meaning Americans Be So Far Apart?


The Employee Free Choice Act, aka "card check" is the most contentious issue now before Congress. The proposal would change labor law so that a union could be created if union organizers obtain over half of the employees' signatures. No private ballot would be required unless 30 percent of workers demand one in writing. Moreover, 120 days after unionization, federal arbitrators would set the conditions of work should the union and management disagree.

Why has this proposal generated such attention from both business and labor to the point that swing vote, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, said it has been the "most lobbied" issue in his entire career in Congress?

With a nation reeling in a harsh recession, the challenges faced by Detroit auto companies and the pro card-check forces in control of Congress and the White House, it seems like the best or the worst time to raise this proposal.

As the House passed this proposal two years ago, it comes down to the 60 votes needed in the Senate to stop debate (invoke "cloture"). Senators Specter and Blanche Lincoln's recent announcement that they would vote against cloture -- and a few other Democrat Senators stating this is "not the time" -- would seem to have squelched the debate for now.

Yet, both business and labor have not given up, and few on either side are talking compromise.

Labor unions argue that union membership and the middle class are in decline, and furthermore, that this legislation is necessary to expand the middle class and create meaningful jobs. They say that management intimidates employees prior to any private vote, so a stealth petition drive creating a union is necessary.

Businesses say that preserving a worker's private vote is sanctimonious. Some businesses argue that unions restrict competitiveness, deny flexibility and reduce jobs.

I am the son of a union organizer, but I represent more than 2,000 companies. I have never felt stronger that a proposal would be so bad for our country. I spend time on the AFL-CIO website and comments section on its blogs simply to understand how and why the unions can see things so differently than me.

I know (and lots of research shows) this proposal, if enacted, will cost millions of American jobs. The CEOs of my member companies also tell me this. From the biggest hi-tech CEOs to the guy in a garage with one employee, manufacturer, software company or service provider, they all agree that if this proposal becomes law, they will be incentivized to outsource. Most technology jobs are location neutral and can be performed anywhere in the world.

Talking to big and small company CEOs, I believe they also view themselves as caring about their employees and agonize over any non-cause firing. They don't sleep well because they are always thinking about the people responsibilities of their job. Those that are familiar with unions have had varied experiences. Those that are not familiar do not want unions.

The data does not support the union arguments. In 2007, almost 6,000 charges were filed against unions with some 85 percent alleging illegal restraint and coercion of employees. Of those, more than four out of five were filed by individuals with other unions filing many of the rest.

The present law does not seem to disfavor unions. Union membership actually rose in 2008. What card check would do is guarantee big union membership rolls and provide a jump in mandatory union dues.

In any case, even members of Congress are saying they have had enough.

Democrat and Republican members agree that this has been among the most heavily lobbied issues in their career. Both parties report the issue is causing them a lot of time and angst. All agree that the sides of the debate are so far divided that a compromise seems inappropriate, if not impossible.

Republicans and Democrats say they have never seen business so united. Legislators are concerned about the next election and how what they do on this issue will play out (no matter what their position) given the intensity of both sides.

Increasingly, Democrats are saying this is the wrong time to have a "card check" debate given the challenges of Detroit and the economy. Some Republicans appreciate that this issue is one that clearly differentiates them from Democrats, but they are horrified that if the bill becomes law it will hurt our national competitiveness.

The only compromise I see now is that both sides agree to drop the issue until the economy improves. In the meantime, a respected bipartisan study group should research the issue of union and management intimidation and report back on whether the present law should change.

I am very hopeful that card check is dead for this Congress. The issue is divisive, harmful, and not a good use of time by anyone.

Given the national economic crisis, unions need to do a reality check on card check and check out on this issue.


Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.