- The Washington Times - Monday, January 4, 2010


In the last two election cycles, organized labor sunk hundreds of millions of dollars and incalculable man hours into electing a Democratic Congress and president. It worked, but the priorities of organized labor then took a back seat to other priorities in the first year of the new administration. Unions would have to wait their turn.

Labor has gone along with the Democrats’ health care plans, or muted its protests, because it has tied its success so closely to the Democrats. One can argue that this hurts the interests of rank-and-file union workers, and on some specifics this is correct. To help pay for their plan, for instance, Democrats may end up taxing some of the more lavish insurance plans that union negotiators have wrung out of companies.

The gamble is that once Democrats get used to using their supermajority to overturn the status quo, they will be willing to go further on issues unions really care about. Here are six issues that are likely to come up this year, in Congress or in the federal bureaucracy:

(1) Card check. Unions don’t like losing unionization elections, so they want the U.S. government to accept the sign up cards that they use to call for an election instead. This would effectively replace the private ballot with the public clipboard and open up workers to intimidation and manipulation.

Card check was all but declared dead last year. Senate Democrats had the votes to end a filibuster, but there were enough moderate Democrats who didn’t want to go along with it. Where have we heard that one before?

(2) Binding arbitration. This was a controversial but less well- known provision of the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. Currently, after a unionization election, the union representing the workers and the company sit down and try to negotiate a contract in good faith. The union wants a contract and the company doesn’t want a strike, so both have incentive to be reasonable and work together.

Those incentives would disappear if the federal government parachuted in an arbitrator after 120 or 150 days who had the power to impose a contract. Both parties might make outlandish demands in the hope of getting a better deal out of the arbitrator. Either the employer or the union - or both -could wind up with a completely unworkable contract.

(3) Union pensions bailout. Many union-managed multiemployer pension funds are so badly funded that they may be close to collapse. The Pension Benefits Guarantee Corp., which had been funded by insurance premiums, not taxpayer dollars, guarantees only a fraction of the money promised to pensioners. Unions want a bailout and a number of bills floating around in Congress, including one introduced by Rep. Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat, aim to do just that, by increasing the amount that the PBGC guarantees to pay out and creating a separate fund, paid for by U.S. taxpayers, that could give money to the multiemployer pension funds.

(4) Union reporting requirements. One great achievement of the Bush Labor Department was forcing unions to disclose and itemize much of what they spend money on. Union bosses hated this because it allowed people, including rank-and-file workers, to see how union funds had been misspent. The Obama Labor Department is working to water down those reporting requirements and delaying or canceling any new requirements.

(5) More stimulus. Before the House recessed last year, it passed a $155 billion stimulus bill. The Senate will be taking it up soon. As with the earlier stimulus bill, this would be, essentially, about preserving heavily unionized government jobs, or advantaging unionized contractors over their non-unionized competitors.

(6) National Labor Relations Board. Many of the Obama administration’s greatest changes will be regulatory ones. Witness the recent and unexpected ruling from the obscure agency the National Mediation Board that overturned 75 years of settled labor law to make it easier to unionize Delta and Continental airlines.

The Obama appointments to the National Labor Relations Board have a lot of observers worried. Craig Becker served as associate counsel of the Service Employees International Union. He also helped to lay the intellectual groundwork for card check legislation.

What’s more, Mr. Becker wrote in a law review article that the government might be able to accomplish through regulation what the Congress fails to do through legislation. The Senate is set to act on Mr. Becker’s nomination shortly. Maybe somebody should ask him about that. Barring some great gaffe or unforeseen scandal, he is likely to have a seat on the government agency that interprets labor law and oversees unionization elections.

This last year union leaders occasionally bristled at all the attention paid to health care. But on the whole they waited patiently.

We don’t know yet if this year will be “their turn” but right now that’s something that all Americans should be concerned about.

Terrence Scanlon is president of the Capital Research Center.

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