Monday, March 23, 2009

Short Notes Extravaganza

Good things, when they are short, are twice as good. -- Baltasar Gracian

In this week's Sift:
  • Does the EFCA Threaten Life As We Know It? The rhetoric about the Employee Free Choice Act (or "card check" as its opponents call it) has gotten way out of hand, to the point that it's hard to find out what the bill would actually do. I try to sort it out.
  • Short Notes. Way, way more short notes than usual, including a bunch that readers have sent in. (You know who you are.)


Does the EFCA Threaten Life As We Know It?
One of the founders of Home Depot calls it "the demise of civilization," and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has apparently compared it to Armageddon (though I'm not able to find the original link). Business interests are spending tens, maybe hundreds, of millions to campaign against it. The mere possibility that it might pass was enough to cause a Citibank analyst to downgrade WalMart's stock. What is this approaching apocalypse? It's the Employee Free Choice Act, which its opponents refer to (in typical conservative "death tax" fashion) as the "card check" bill.

I'd love to link to a level-headed, fact-based discussion of this issue and be on my way, but it turns out to be remarkably hard to find one. What everybody seems to agree about is this: The EFCA would change the way workers at non-union companies decide whether or not to unionize, and would make it easier for unions to win these battles.

Most discussions of the EFCA begin with one side saying the bill would do X, then the opponents saying it wouldn't, and before long people are calling each other "corporate shills" and "union thugs" and other nice names. I want to start somewhere else. To understand the EFCA, you first need to understand this: The process for organizing a union in this country is seriously screwed up, and something needs to be done about it. Only then does it make sense to ask whether the EFCA is the right thing to do.

How Things (Don't) Work Now. On paper, the current unionization process sounds fairly reasonable: A union demonstrates its support by getting at least 30% of a company's workers to sign a card saying they want the union to represent them. Then the company has a choice: It can either recognize the union and start negotiating a contract, or it can call for a secret-ballot election. The election is held a couple months or so later, and is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, which has strict rules about what the two sides can and can't do during the campaign. If more than half the workers vote for the union, it's in.

Anti-EFCA articles present this process as if things really happened that way. But in practice, they don't. The NLRB election rules are not exactly fair, and what's worse, many companies have decided that the penalties for violating the rules are less than what a union would cost them. Lawsuits to extract those penalties can drag out for years, delaying the secret-ballot election indefinitely.

For example, when workers at a St. Louis nursing home tried to unionize, management illegally fired a number of union supporters within weeks and harassed pro-union workers in a variety of other ways, some legal, some not. After a year of litigation, the fired workers got their jobs back, but the union election still hadn't happened.

A report by Human Rights Watch says this isn't a unique case:
Enforcement is so lax, remedies are so weak, and delays are so prolonged that many employers become labor scofflaws who see action by labor law authorities as a routine cost of doing business, worth it to destroy workers' self-organizing efforts.
Even within the rules, the company has total control of the environment. University of Oregon political scientist Gordon Lafer writes:
Anti-union managers are free to campaign to every employee, every day, throughout the day; but pro-union employees can campaign only on break time. Furthermore, management can post anti-union propaganda on bulletin boards and walls — while prohibiting pro-union employees from doing the same. By law, employers can force workers to attend mass anti-union propaganda events. Not only are pro-union employees not given equal time, but they can be forced to attend on condition that they not ask any questions. Recent data show that workers are forced to attend between five and 10 such one-sided meetings. If, during the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democrats could have forced every voter in America to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 (or if the Republicans could have forced everyone to watch the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth video), with no opportunity for response from the other side, none of us would have called this “democracy.”
Management can't legally threaten to close or move the business if the union wins the election, but if they just predict or speculate about it, that's OK. And what if they don't fire union supporters outright, but just give them crappy assignments and hours, and hope that they'll quit during the indefinite delay before the election? That's OK if it doesn't go too far, and even it does, not much can be done about it. And there's no policing what management might say in one-on-one meetings. The Human Rights Watch report quotes an unidentified worker at Nebraska Beef:
The main plant manager is Mexican. He knows who are the undocumented workers. He called them in one-by-one to his office and told them that if they voted for the union they would be deported. People were scared the company would find out how they voted. In Mexico the vote is not secret. They thought it was like that here.
Now suppose that even with all these disadvantages, the union wins the election. The law says the company has to negotiate with the union then, but what if it doesn't? Well, that's a whole new legal battle. Or, the union can strike, the company can use illegal strike-breaking tactics, and then the union can sue about that. And so on.

You get the idea: Even if workers overwhelmingly want union representation, they might not get it for many years, during which they might just give up. The process has to change.

What the EFCA Does. The most publicized piece of EFCA is the "card check" provision. If more than half of the workers sign cards saying they want a particular union to represent them, that's it. No campaign, no election. (30-50% still brings on an election.) EFCA opponents raise two issues here:
  • Intimidation. Now it's the union organizers who might have the one-on-one (or many-on-one) meetings. Management-types portray this as union thugs showing up at your door and refusing to leave until you sign a card, but it's hard to say how realistic that picture is. Threats of violence would be illegal, of course, but now the enforcement shoe is on the other foot; the devil would be in the details, which I don't know. More likely (and probably more effective) than violence would be peer pressure, salesmanship, and other totally legal methods of getting a signature out of somebody who might vote No on a secret ballot. Whether or not that's bad depends on your point of view.
  • Uninformed workers. In theory, the whole union-organizing process could happen without management -- or even all the workers -- knowing about it. Instead of having months or years to make its anti-union case to the workers, a company might just be informed out of the blue that it has to start bargaining with a legally-recognized union. Two thoughts in response: (1) If management is that far out of touch, the workplace really needs a union. (2) How to be represented is the workers' decision to make; if they don't respect management's opinion enough to ask for it, that's their choice. Jane Hamsher doesn't beat around the bush: "People are capable of deciding what information they need to make a 'fully informed choice.' Just because you don't get to peddle your bullshit first doesn't make it 'uninformed'."
Another change is that illegal union-busting tactics (like firing organizers) would have real penalties, rather than continuing to be "a routine cost of doing business." Instead of just giving fired workers their jobs back or throwing out the results of a tainted election, courts would be able to impose punitive damages on companies that break the law.

After the union is recognized, the EFCA would allow 120 days for union and management to work out a contract. Otherwise, either side could request a government mediator, beginning a process that could result in binding arbitration. So companies would have real motivation to bargain in good faith, rather than just thumb their noses and dare fledgling unions to strike. Business interests protest that this gives government power over private industry, but management can avoid that outcome by reaching an agreement with the union. What really is lost is management's complete autonomy over the workplace. They have to negotiate with somebody, either the union or the government. Again, whether that's good or bad depends on your point of view.

Summing Up. That doesn't sound much like "the demise of civilization" to me. I think the rhetoric about the EFCA has become so heated because it's a proxy for a larger issue: Are unions good or bad? People who feel strongly one way or the other on that question tend to support any set of rules that gives the result they want.

But that's the wrong issue, because Congress shouldn't be deciding whether or not workers unionize. If workers want to negotiate with their employers collectively through a union, or if they don't, they should be able to make that choice themselves. Currently, the deck is stacked in such a way that many workers who want a union can't get one. The law should provide a fair process and then get out of the way, not dictate a result.

My take on the EFCA comes down to this: It's a legitimate attempt to solve real problems with the current process. There might be a devil in the details somewhere, but if so, the opposition should point out the problems and propose amendments. The current process is grossly unfair, so just defeating the EFCA and leaving things the way they are should not be an option.


Short Notes
Every week people send me things I should mention on the Sift, and I hardly ever do. I guess I have a found-it-myself bias. Well, this week I'm going the other way. Several of you will recognize this stuff.

To start with, my sister-in-law (who is responsible for more than a few of the links that follow) sent me this video, of comedian Louis C. K. on Conan O'Brien's show. Louis speaks for a lot of us older folks, who are amazed by the things that younger people take for granted. About people who complain about air travel, he says: "You're sitting in a chair in the sky."

I try not to get caught up in the media-firestorm-of-the-day, figuring that you already know as much about that as you want to. Occasionally, though, something gets out-of-hand to the point that that becomes the story. The AIG bonus outrage is getting there; I'll watch it for another week and maybe try to sort the legitimate stuff from the hyperbole next time.

But I can already tell you that I think Frank Rich (who I usually like) went over-the-top by wondering whether this would be Obama's "Katrina moment". Inky99 on DailyKos responded by posting a few pictures of dead bodies from Katrina. So no, the AIG bonus outrage does not constitute a Katrina moment. It's also not a Holocaust moment, a killing fields moment, or a Noah's Flood moment.

Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief-of-staff for Colin Powell, wrote a great article about Guantanamo. He makes the charge that most of the detainees there were innocent and top American officials knew it. I'm not surprised. McClatchy published similar conclusions last June.

The underlying logic of the situation was laid out by Iraq interrogator Tony Lagouranis in Fear Up Harsh, which I recommended last June. At every level, the pressure was not to let any terrorist get away. There was no comparable pressure to let the innocent go. So the "safe" thing to do was to detain everybody, and to keep pushing them up the chain until they wound up in Abu Ghraib or Bhagram or Guantanamo.

Wilkerson, I think, has just become the highest-ranking former Bush official to apply the adjective this policy deserves: evil.

Pope Benedict on AIDS in Africa :
"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope said aboard his plane to Cameroon. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."
The logic here is basically the same as when people claim that sex education increases teen pregnancy: If we make promiscuity as dangerous as possible, then people won't do it. In the history of the world, has that ever worked?

The Bellows provides two revealing charts that break down unemployment by industry. Matt Yglesias summarizes:
not only is the total unemployment rate in finance low, but the increase in unemployment there has been distinctly modest compared to construction, mining, agriculture, manufacturing, retail & wholesale, and even transportation. It’s a reminder that endlessly fascinating as the financial snarl may be, you’re mostly look at a collapse in demand. People in general are buying less stuff, leading to fewer jobs in the fields of making stuff, moving it around, and selling it.

The transcript of Dick Cheney's interview with CNN's John King is here. (The only way I can stand to watch Dick Cheney these days is in Scott Bateman's animation.) The interview is not 100% softball -- King does play the "We'll be greeted as liberators" clip -- but it's pretty soft. The word torture only appears when King asks whether Obama's admission that waterboarding is torture will make us less safe. And that definitely is a softball question.

In general, Cheney has his say on a subject, and then King moves on without any challenging follow-up. I'm reminded of what Glenn Greenwald asked after King interviewed John McCain in 2008:
if McCain's actual Press Secretary ... had conducted this "interview," how would it have been any different?
Ariana Huffington had the same thought I did: What if it had been Jon Stewart interviewing Cheney?
I believe it does me good, every now and then, to read something I think is totally wrong-headed. So thank God the Washington Post published this: Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve) explains why it would be awful if America became more like Europe. The gist (and don't trust me on this, because it's hard to summarize something that doesn't make sense to you) is that Europeans don't make lots of babies or go to church much, and they work to live rather than live to work. So it follows that their lives are meaningless. Oh, and I forgot this part: Any day now science is going to get around to proving that European lives are meaningless, or that equal opportunity is a bad idea, or something like that. Read it yourself. It's good for you. (Nicholas Kristof thinks it's good for you too.)

The WaPo was on a roll Sunday. They also marked the 30th anniversary of Three Mile Island with 5 Myths On Nuclear Power. The article leaves me with this logical conundrum: If you take a half-truth and say that it's false, is your statement also a half-truth?

While I'm ragging on the Post, I have to give them credit for this: They allowed Chris Mooney to point out that George Will has been spouting nonsense about climate change. Matt Yglesias, though, believes that Mooney didn't come down nearly hard enough.

Digby makes an interesting point: With all the conservative attempts to label Obama a "socialist" -- to the point that a NYT interviewer asked him about it -- why is it that no actual professing socialists are ever consulted? I mean, I've seen gobs of libertarians on TV over the years. Why no socialists?

Happy 20th birthday to the World Wide Web. Little-known fact: Tim Berners-Lee and I used to go to the same church and have several friends in common, but I don't believe we've ever actually had a conversation.

I've mentioned Sandra Day O'Connor's "Our Courts" project before, but it continues to evolve. She introduces it with a 4-minute video explaining that she wants to give Civics "a makeover". I wouldn't have thought of that metaphor, or this one:
The Founders of our Constitution and our government created three equal branches of government. Like super heroes, each branch of government has special powers, but each one also has certain weaknesses.
Just in case we need it again someday, I'm still looking for Executive Kryptonite.

I wandered over to Our Courts from Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, a blog where a woman who used to work for O'Connor is chronicling her year-long exploration of every conceivable theory of happiness. It's a thought-provoking site. I imagine a lot of Gretchen's female readers are provoked to have this thought: "I'd be happy if I looked like that."

I had my own small-scale Happiness Project once: I led a reading course comparing Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness with the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness. Oddly, even though the once-a-week course was led by a man and men wrote both books, only women signed up. My wife referred to it as "Doug's night out with the girls."

Another journalism experiment: Patch, a collection of local-news web sites.

President Obama sent a video message to the people of Iran as they celebrate their new year. (Happy 1388!) In it, he made the bold move of calling the Iranian government by its actual name: the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Bush administration usually referred to the Iranian government as "the Iranian regime" or some other disrespectful name. It's the same thought process that causes Republicans to refer to "the Democrat Party" rather than "the Democratic Party". It took me a while to figure this out, but apparently the Bushies thought it was a sign of power to demonstrate that you can call things by whatever name you want.

One more reason to be glad their era is over.

2 comments:

Lance Brown said...

I read Murray's column twice and it still didn't make any sense to me...

Doug Muder said...

Ed Fields points me to the reference I couldn't find: The quote about the EFCA being "Armageddon" was said by U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President Randel Johnson, and appeared in the New York Times on November 8.