When Sen. Arlen Specter announced last week that he opposed the Employee Free Choice Act (legislation permitting union organizing by card check rather than secret ballot), it appeared to diminish chances of the bill’s passage for the time being.
But the idea will no doubt be back, so it might be worthwhile to reflect for a moment on how this particular proposal comports with Catholic social teaching (CST). Opponents of card check argue that it will open workers to union pressure tactics. Advocates argue that employers already use pressure tactics and card check makes it easier for unions to form, which is in the best interest of the workers. (See both sides articulated in this LA Times debate.)
The proposal involves other issues as well, but I think it is correct to focus on the question of coercion. In the social encyclical tradition, beginning with Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891), the popes speak positively about labor unions but not unequivocally so. They praise unions insofar as they are ordered to the common good, do not act contrary to the faith (e.g., by disseminating atheist or anti-Catholic opinions), and serve the genuine welfare of workers.
Intrinsic to this papal understanding of beneficial unionism is the right of free association. The union, in this understanding, is simply one of many associations in which people participate in pursuit of individual goods and in service of the common good. If there is coercion—for or against union organizing—then the moral validity of the labor system is compromised.
The question, then, is whether card check legislation would enhance or detract from the goal of free association of workers. It is hard to see how it would enhance it. James Sherk has documented instances of coercion where card check has been in place. In response, advocates point to instances of dubious employer tactics on the other side.
I’m sure that in unionization disputes there are all sorts of pressures brought to bear on all sides. Some degree of pressure will be unavoidable—it is a heated issue about which people who spend many hours a day, every day, with each other differ. The goal, however, should be to reduce the opportunities for outright coercion, not to increase them. I cannot see, then, how the opportunity to sign a union card in front of one’s peers is an improvement over a ballot that is secret.
CST supports the formation of voluntary associations, including labor unions. Card check is a step away from rather than toward the ideal of an economy composed of men and women acting freely and without compulsion.
For a broader treatment of related matters, see CSTS volume 5, Charles Baird’s Liberating Labor.