Card Check may be good for Central PA

“When it gets rough out there, a lot of business leaders get out of the car and say, ‘We’re OK with minor reform,'” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s appointed chief of staff, recently told The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council. “I’m challenging you today, we’re going to have to do big, serious things.”

I agree with Emanuel. Looking at the economy as it stands (and is forecasted to play out), it’s hard not to.

The problem is that on the whole, senior managers of established businesses do not like big, serious changes. Stability and predictability is almost invariably in their best interest. When they do get behind big, serious changes, it is often because the change will lead to more stability and predictability.

I would like to suggest two things for the consideration of my fellow Lancaster County citizens:

  1. Our county’s economy does indeed need some major changes, and
  2. Allowing unions to form through a “card check” system may be a good such change.

Yes, Lancaster is doing better than many other areas of the country. Forbes named the county one of the ten best places to weather out the recession, and then Kiplinger’s said our city is one of the nation’s  “six real estate safe havens.”

For a long time, a remarkably low unemployment rate in the county has, to an extent, offset concerns that median household income is just as remarkably low. A lot of people aren’t working for much, but hey, at least they’re working. That has now changed. Even our unemployment numbers are beginning to rot: in October unemployment shot up to 4.7% in the county, meaning we have 12,800 people actively but unsuccessfully looking for work. That’s more than the entire population of Elizabethtown.

We need to change directions. This state of affairs cannot continue. Unions may not the the idea change agents, but at least they are change agents. Unions of middle-class workers have given us enhanced social security, medicare, and a minimum wage. Unions make sure workers can take care of themselves and their families, and that the people who produce gains in productivity receive the rewards of productivity. Importantly, middle- and working-class union members spend their income.

Unions are not that big of a deal

We all too often make a goblin out of unionization. Right now no more than twelve percent of American workers are in unions (those workers include Lancaster County educators, and local employees of Armstrong, Kellogg, car shops, construction companies, manufacturing plants, and service firms).  That twelve percent is down from a historic high of thirty-three percent. Not exactly a cause for alarm today.

What’s more, the number of unionized workers sits at twelve percent today in significant part due to illegal practices by employers. In 1969, there were one thousand infractions of the laws protecting the formation of unions. In 2005, that number was more than thirty thousand.

Ben Eisler makes a big deal of this on his blog at The New Republic. He suggests that one solution is to increase the penalties for these crimes and ramp up enforcement, which is currently lax. But, he says, the cheaper solution is the so-called card check.

The idea is this: Right now workers have to tell their company’s senior managers if they are going to try to form a union. It’s like having to announce, “Hey! We’ve been trying to work with you to get a fair shake here, and you’re not giving it to us or listening to our input on how our company can do better. We’re going to try to start a union! You’d better get moving if you want to stop us!” Under the card-check system being worked on in the U.S. Senate,  employees can sign a legal document (a “card”) to indicate that they want to form a union. If a majority of employees sign it, the union is considered a legal entity that the employer has to work with.

Imagine it like this: If we’re in a company of one thousand employees, there may easily be six hundred or more of us who think that our bosses are mismanaging things. Their leadership skills are wanting, they don’t listen to input from those of us on the ground, and they don’t share profits in a fair way. We all want to address it with the directors, but we don’t have any ability to insist on even two of us meeting with them at the same time. They can say, “Sure, we want to hear from you, but we want to meet with you six-on-one. And if we don’t like what you have to say, we reserve the right to let you go.”

There is a lot of baggage that goes along with unionization today, but at their hear the only thing that unions inherently do is allow for employees to have a collective voice in discussions with upper management.  Employees today fin it nearly impossible to form new unions. (Employees at Wal-Mart know first-hand the most agreesive anti-unions efforts found inside any company.) There are a number of decent ideas of how to remedy this situation, but allowing employees to band together into an official group by signing a petition is the least expensive and most efficient.

Best of all, it is middle- and working-class people who, increasinlgy, have the least to lose when the economy is already bad. That means we are willing to take risks and push our companies to take risks. I think we ought to consider giving those change agents just a little bit of assistance, for the sake of our economy.