Union card check needs closer look


POSTED: Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Gov. Linda Lingle has promised to issue her second veto of a bill that would allow labor unions in Hawaii to circumvent secret elections in organizing campaigns. The issue now is before Congress to find a compromise that would prevent intimidation from labor or management in determining union representations of employees.

The measure approved by the Legislature last year and again this year would allow unions to obtain certification if more than half of a company's employees sign union authorization cards. A similar bill in Congress appears to lack the support needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a former sponsor of the original “;card check”; legislation, has proposed a compromise allowing employees to send their cards or ballots to a third party to avert intimidation by labor or management. Other alternative proposals would require a “;supermajority”; of 60 percent or 67 percent for card certification and require a secret ballot at the request of at least one-third of workers.

Union membership in the United States has fallen for more than a half-century, due partly to labor's complacency. In 1972, George Meany, then president of the AFL-CIO, said he didn't care about the decline because “;the size of the membership ... doesn't make any difference.”;

The exceptional unions have been the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which organized Hawaii state and county employees in the 1970s, and the Service Employees International Union, which has quadrupled its membership — much of it comprised of public employees — since that period.

In Hawaii, the number of union members rose last year from 130,000 to 136,000, amounting to 24.3 percent of workers, second-highest in the country and nearly twice the national percentage. Nationally, public employees are five times more likely to belong to unions than are workers in the private sector, at which card check is aimed, and that disparity is reflected in Hawaii.

Without question, private employers maintain an advantage in steering their employees away from union representation. Employers have unlimited access to their employees during the work day but still illegally threaten or fire union supporters among their staffs in one-fourth of organizing drives, according to studies. Union organizers often are confined to company parking lots, if that.

Such disparity should be corrected to provide management and labor equal access to put forth their points of view. Protection against illegal activity in organizing campaigns needs greater enforcement.

Card check is no remedy. Darwin L.C. Ching, director of Hawaii's Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, correctly pointed out in testimony to legislators that in such a system “;there is no way to determine whether a worker's signature was given freely and without intimidation, pressure or coercion from fellow employees, labor representatives, or the employer.”;