Freedom New Mexico
California Democratic Congresswoman Hilda Solis, as President-elect Obama’s choice to be secretary of labor, will no doubt bring encouragement and even a touch of joy to union leaders everywhere. Whether the rest of us will have occasion to be pleased is another question.
The larger issue nobody wants to discuss is whether it is appropriate in a free country with a government of strictly limited powers, to have such a personage as secretary of labor (or of commerce, education, energy, or health and human services for that matter).
Given that the point is effectively mooted, however, it might be nice to wish that a secretary of labor could be concerned with safeguarding the dignity and stressing the importance of labor of all kinds, including unpaid labor as well as intellectual labor, which is the source, through innovation and capital investment, of so much of our prosperity.
It is likely, however, given her record, that Solis will concern herself not so much with broader conceptions of labor as with the health of the union movement per se. She was first elected against a fellow Democrat with union backing and has voted as the AFL-CIO prefers 97 percent of the time while in Congress. Three-quarters of her campaign contributions have come from labor unions.
The issue labor unions are most concerned with just now is what is called the Employee Free Choice Act, also called card-check. This proposal would stipulate that if 50 percent plus one of a company’s employees signs a card saying they are interested in having a union represent them, then the union would be automatically certified. Under current law employers are permitted to ask for a secret ballot before a union is installed.
We suspect that passing this law will make less difference than either its proponents hope or its opponents fear. It is true that union organizers sometimes use intimidation tactics to get employees to sign up, though it’s difficult to be sure just how widespread the practice is.
But the decline in union membership as a percentage of the U.S. workforce, a trend of at least four decades standing, probably has little to do with how difficult or easy it is to get a union installed at a company. Instead, it reflects much larger structural changes in the economy, including the information revolution and changes in manufacturing practices.
If card-check passes, as Solis will undoubtedly try to get done, then, a few more union leaders will have more dues-paying members and more money available for political activities, but we are unlikely to see a massive resurgence of unionization. Perhaps a little more money and a little more political power is all union leaders want, however.
Unfortunately, passage will result in employees having less free choice, while unions have less government oversight against corruption. That is hardly likely to spark much economic recovery.