(Card) Check Please
I have long been amused (and somewhat confused) by certain bizarre conservative rallying cries. At political rallies you'll hear people chanting "USA" and cheering for low taxes, as would be expected. But then they wildly explode when the politician says the words ... tort reform? It's like some magical incantation that is only understood by those who are members of the tribe. The literal term can't possibly be meaningful to most people unless they think this has something to do with baked goods. Yet they scream and shout in a near frenzy at the mere mention of the phrase. It's clearly Pavlovian talk radio conditioning.
This past election I noticed a new catch phrase. The minute a conservative breathes the word "card check," his or her supporters completely lose their minds. When he ratchets it up saying "lose your right to a secret ballot" they come completely unhinged with even more energy than they unleash when someone says "we're going to beat the terrorists." It's just weird.
Obviously the right, through the Chamber of Commerce and other business entities are working hard to prime the public to be hostile to unions being able to organize by simply having people sign up instead of requiring on-site elections in front of the boss, which is the purpose of the Employee Free Choice Act or "card check." Here's a set of talking points, easily obtained through Mr Google from the Associated Builders and Contractors. It features all the usual nonsense (the most hilariously hypocritical being the notion that they believe one should have the same freedom on the job that one has in civic life. Hah!) But even though it makes no sense, it gives people a way to talk about something that's rather difficult to explain.
But where does the passion come from? How do you get people to really feel that it's important to stop unions from getting people to do a simple opt-in? "Pollster" Frank Luntz speaking to the Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas last week, makes it clear:
"I'm afraid for employees if it passes," Luntz said. "The level of intimidation and coercion would be unprecedented. Workers are about to lose their most important right (a secret vote). I'm very angry with the business community for not saying more about it."
It's the victimization, stupid,as this post from the National Right To Work web site vividly illustrates:
I had a friend in California who grew up in Michigan. His father was a UAW local official. He remembered vividly being in a coffee shop with his family one day. The guy in the next booth made some remark to a companion that was uncomplimentary to the union--and my friend's father instinctively swung his coffee mug around and shattered it on this guy's jaw.
There's a long and ugly, bloody, deadly history of corporations and labor unions fighting it out in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There's plenty of evil that was done by both sides. But this is not the situation today--not even close. Labor violence today is almost entirely by labor unions. I can easily believe that the reason that the AFL-CIO wants to "streamline" the process is that they are intimidating workers into signing authorization cards--and don't dare risk a secret ballot.
(He doesn't cite any specific examples of recent union violence, but then he may think "The Sopranos" was an HBO documentary series. ) This is obviously another example of the right's post modernist inversion --- these on site elections are often exercises in intimidation by management to keep the union from organizing.
Thomas Frank has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning that lays out the real framework of this debate:
During the campaign, you will recall, the debate over card check was supposed to be about principle, about democracy, about the sacredness of the secret ballot. However, as I pointed out a few months ago, union-certification elections often don't meet the most basic democratic requirements. Supervisors routinely hold captive-audience meetings with workers in preparation for elections; management commonly threatens to close up shop if the union wins; antiunion employees are frequently rewarded and pro-union employees are sometimes fired.
So it may not surprise you to learn that democracy isn't really the main concern of card-check's opponents. It's unions themselves. Changing the rules will make it easier to organize them.
Card check is about power. Management has it, workers don't, and business doesn't want that to change. Consider the remarks made by Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott at an analyst meeting on Oct. 28, when he was asked about the possible coming of card check: "We like driving the car and we're not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us."
That last, as Perlstein points out here, puts the lie to the absurdity that these businesses are fighting for their employees' constitutional right to a secret ballot.
And it's true that there is a lot of violent rhetoric around this subject --- but it isn't coming from the unions. Frank continues:
"This is the demise of a civilization," moaned Bernie Marcus, cofounder and former CEO of The Home Depot, during an Oct. 17 conference call about card check. "This is how a civilization disappears. I'm sitting here as an elder statesman, and I'm watching this happen, and I don't believe it."
Mr. Marcus sketched out the doomsday scenario for his listeners, with unions going after what he called the "low hanging fruit" and proceeding to organize workers in industry after industry. He had taken it upon himself to notify the nation's CEOs of the danger, but they were not yet grabbing their guns. "This is as important as anything that's ever happened to these companies. And they're not reacting, and they're not fighting. The old time fighters are gone."
But in the class war, as in the real deal, there are always ways of motivating the yellow. "If a retailer has not gotten involved with this, if he has not spent money on this election, if he has not sent money to Norm Coleman and these other guys," Mr. Marcus said, apparently referring to Republican senators facing tough re-election fights, then those retailers "should be shot; should be thrown out of their goddamn jobs."
Mr. Marcus may snarl, but he doesn't bark. His is the voice of a business class rediscovering its ancestral zeal for combat. Liberals should take heed. If they thought the "Harry and Louise" campaign that sank Hillary Clinton's health-care reform was dirty, they should know they ain't seen nothing yet.
It looks that way. The economic crisis, particularly the Big 3 meltdown, is offering the right what they see as a new opportunity to break unions and destroy any advances workers might have expected under a progressive government. They may be temporarily in disarray politically, but the right never forgets their primary mission --- protecting the wealthy. And they are very good at advancing that agenda whether in the majority or the minority. Under the Shock Doctrine, they have a perfect opportunity to end the union movement in America and they'll certainly do their best to take advantage of the moment.