Editorial: Legislation names can be deceiving

The fine art of giving official names to pieces of legislation is usually an exercise in propaganda and often enough verges on deception.

But few legislative proposals bear as Orwellian a moniker as the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, (EFCA) also known as “card check,” whose transparent purpose is to undermine free choice.

And that may not be its worst aspect.

This proposal, formally introduced last week, is the centerpiece of the labor union agenda for this session of a Congress with the largest majority of Democrats beholden to labor in recent memory.

It would provide that if a majority of employees in a given company sign an authorization card the union undertaking an organizing campaign will automatically become the designated bargaining agent.

Under federal law for the last 70 years, employers have had the option of calling for a secret-ballot election before the union is certified. The EFCA proposal also provides that if labor and management cannot agree on a contract within 120 days a government arbitrator will intervene,

Labor and business lobbyists (the latter mobilized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) swarmed Capitol Hill last week arguing for and against the bill. Both sides allege the other side regularly engages in intimidation and dirty tricks during union organizing campaigns. Although we can’t assess the credibility of the charges directly, it’s likely that both sides have some truth on their side but they exaggerate the situation.

It should be clear, however, that to whatever extent intimidation exists, holding an election by secret ballot is probably the best way to neutralize it and allow employees to express their true preferences without one side or the other (or both) staring them in the face (or worse).

This proposal is about as transparent an attempt as can be imagined to tilt the playing field in favor of unionization. Today only 7.8 percent of the private-sector work force is unionized, down from almost 21 percent in 1978, and unions would clearly like to get back some of the membership and dues they have lost over the years.

The mandatory arbitration provision is, if anything, more pernicious. It could make private bargaining a waste of time, as one side or the other could hold out long enough to bring the feds in. An arbitration panel would have virtually unlimited power to dictate terms, thus making the government rather than management and employees the ultimate “decider.” If anything, government already has too much power over the terms and conditions under which people work.

The EFCA commands a clear majority in the House, but things are more uncertain in the Senate where, because of filibuster rules, 60 votes would probably be required. During the last session of Congress Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (who already faces the likelihood of a primary challenge) was the only Republican to side with labor on this issue. Moderate to conservative Democrats Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln are said to be shaky. Proponents are hoping Democratic comedian Al Franken ultimately wins the endless recount in Minnesota, and will probably delay a vote until that race is settled.

If they wait forever it will be all right with us.