O is for Obama and Obfuscation

On September 15, I was reading President Obama’s speech to the AFL-CIO and my blood pressure must have reacted in an unhealthy manner when I got to the line: “And that’s why I stand behind the Employee Free Choice Act—because if a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union.”

The reason I was angry is that President Obama pulled off a rhetorical sleight of hand. If a majority of workers want a union in the United States, they get a union. That’s been the law of the land since the National Labor Relations Act was approved in 1935. Today unions want the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) because union membership has been on the decline in the private sector for years. The EFCA would make it easier to form new local unions by virtually eliminating secret ballot union formation elections and replacing them with a “card check,” or card registration, process.

Imagine this scenario: My fictitious burly co-worker Fred at ABC Company asks, “Lee, would you please fill out this card and return it to me indicating your interest in forming a union?” Not wanting trouble, I fill out the card and hand it to Fred, creating the illusion that I’m in favor of his initiative. I’m willing to do this because I know that my positive response may only lead to the next step, which is a secret ballot election in which I can vote my conscience without worrying about what Fred thinks. Seeing my response on the card, Fred walks away satisfied and I’m relieved to get rid of him.

As labor law is currently written, if Fred and his like-mined friends can get 30 percent of their colleagues to fill out cards in favor of organizing a union, they may petition the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a secret ballot election to determine whether or not to form a union at ABC Company. Typically, however, union bosses will ask Fred to collect positive registration cards from 75 percent of workers because experience shows that many employees will give a false thumbs-up in the card collection process and end up not voting for the union during a secret ballot election that follows the card check process.

The Employee Free Choice Act, however, would do away with the secret ballot and rely on cards only. In other words, Fred could collect cards without worrying about a secret ballot election. “Since when is the secret ballot a basic tenet of democracy?” Teamsters President Jim Hoffa asked on March 10.

Imagine our earlier scenario if the Employee Free Choice Act were to become law. Do you vote your conscience when Fred hands you a card?

I wrote to a friend who teaches rhetoric at the graduate level and asked him to define President Obama’s rhetorical tactic quoted above. He called it obfuscation. The truth is that if a majority of workers want a union in America, they will get a union in a fair, secret ballot election.