(Part of our Reinventing Conservatism series)
In 2006, my last year as governor of Massachusetts, I vetoed a card-check bill that allowed public workers to organize if a majority signed union authorization cards as opposed to casting a traditional secret ballot. The veto was a gain for the rights of employees and employers to a fair election, but the victory was short-lived.
After I left office, organized labor had another run at replacing the secret ballot with a card check. With the support of Democrats in the legislature, that same bill I had vetoed was passed again in 2007 - and my Democratic successor signed it into law. What happened next is a cautionary tale for Congress as it moves toward a vote on national card-check legislation.
With this powerful new tool, for the first time ever in Massachusetts, a charter school was unionized. One reason so many parents want their children in charter schools is precisely because they operate free of union contracts, so that when administrators want to try something new, they can implement it quickly.
For this, charter schools are fiercely resented by teachers unions as a competitor to failing public schools. Charter schools use a merit system, rewarding teachers according to results in the classroom. They don’t have complicated work rules that smother creativity, nor are they burdened with termination rules that make it almost impossible to dismiss an incompetent teacher.
The union drive started last year when the American Federation of Teachers met with a small group of teachers from the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston. Throughout the summer, they worked behind the scenes to sign up a majority of the 20 teachers at the school. Administrators learned of the successful organizing effort only after the decision to unionize had been made. For parents who may have liked the idea of a union-free school, there was no chance to be heard.
Not surprisingly, the chairman of the school’s trustees is worried that a collective bargaining contract will be loaded with so many workplace restrictions that it will make it harder for the school to fulfill its mission to experiment with new ideas.
Unfortunately, these kinds of underhanded power plays are what we can expect across the nation if card check becomes the law of the land.
By tilting the playing field in favor of unions, card check not only robs workers of a secret ballot, it deprives management of the right to express its point of view. It will dramatically change the workplace as we know it, just as it’s beginning to do for charter schools in Massachusetts. Small businesses will have to hire labor lawyers and follow burdensome new rules. If the parties can’t agree on a contract, mandatory arbitration follows and employers that don’t yield to union demands will have contracts foisted on them.
All of this will raise costs, leading to more unemployment. The Labor Department reported that unemployment in February rose to 8.1 percent as American employers cut another 651,000 jobs. Unions are supposed to serve the interests of working people, yet in this case more power for the unions would help destroy many thousands of jobs throughout the economy.
Conservatives like me are opposed to card check, but not to unions. At their best, labor unions have always fought for the rights of workers, and generations of Americans have been better off for it. But the card-check proposal is not an example of unions at their best - it is a case of union organizers rewriting the rules at the expense of working people.
Its advocates claim that card check is a step forward for labor, as if workers should thank them for making unions less democratic. But anyone who would deny a worker’s right to vote on unionization by secret ballot is not advancing the cause of labor. They are just expanding the power of labor bosses. No one should be forced to publicly declare their intention before their employers and co-workers.
Leaders in the Democratic Party are eager to pay back the union bosses for their campaign support, even if it means selling out the American worker. Responsible members of Congress need to make it clear that Washington will not act to virtually impose unions on businesses. It is undemocratic, and it would devastate business formation and employment, worsening the present economic crisis.
By guarding against coercion and intimidation in the workplace, we can protect our economy from great harm, and secure the rights of employers and employees alike. The working people of America should be able to unionize the way their fathers and mothers did - by free choice and secret ballot.
• Mitt Romney is the former governor of Massachusetts and was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.