With Card Check, the union organizer need merely collect employee signatures in favor of unionization; as soon as 51% of a company's employees have signed, the union has been approved. There are other provisions in the bill but it is the Card Check system that has produced all the controversy.
The bill's champions claim it will make it easier for employees to organize unions at their shops; detractors claim that the bill does away with the secret ballot.
Those in favor of the bill say it will keep employers from threatening or intimidating workers out of joining a union at their workplace. Those against the bill say that it will help union goons to threaten or intimidate workers into joining a union at their workplace.
After a brief period of hyperventilating, this proposal seemed to run out of political steam pretty quickly but the debate over the measure has brought to light a solitary, unthinkable thought:
Maybe labor unions have outlived their usefulness.
That's rather an amazing idea to be coming from somebody who is, in general, a well-behaved Democrat who grew up in a union town like Philadelphia. But, if you think about what unions are supposed to do for workers and if you look at the economic landscape of the early 21stcentury, you have to wonder.
Labor unions were very necessary in a world of giant corporations that, through the old company towns, controlled every aspect of their workers' lives. They helped to reign in the fiefdoms and largely stopped the companies from perpetuating policies that were unfair, practices that were inhumane and working conditions that were unsafe.
Later, when those basics were taken care of, the labor unions served employees by ensuring that the profits generated by productivity increases were shared with the workers. And given the wage stagnation of the last couple of decades, when weakened unions lacked the muscle to get workers a piece of the productivity increase pie, many would say they are needed now more than ever.
Here's the problem with that. Historically, labor unions assumed that companies will take advantage of any opportunity available to exploit workers for their own monetary gain. Their role has always been to stand between the giant unfeeling company and the helpless worker, to insist that the company take care of its people.
These days, the unions themselves are larger than most of the businesses in the country. Take these two basic statistical facts: more than 25% of the nation's labor force works in firms with fewer than fifty employees and firms with fewer than fifty employees comprise more than 96% of all employer firms.
When you compare a company that small with the giant organizations that labor unions have become, which do you think is more likely to be closer to the worker and better able to hear and respond to their needs?
It is ironic but, at this historical moment, the unions more closely resemble the giant corporations they once sought to protect workers from. For them to step between small business owners and their employees would be counterproductive, potentially damaging and perhaps destroying what had been a very healthy relationship.
As more and more U.S. firms trend smaller and as more and more U.S. workers turn away from "jobs" in favor of self-employment, there will need to be some sort of institutional infrastructure put into place that will offer safety nets outside of traditional employment.
We will need to help workers provide their own benefits and, in general, to be independent and take care of themselves. We will need to make up our minds to adjust the tax code so that it no longer punishes people for opting in to self-employment. And we will have to accept, once and for all, that the rise in domestic outsourcing to independent contractors is permanently changing the very nature of the basic employment transaction.
Our society will craft institutions to handle all of this because it will have to. But, whatever those institutions of the near future look like, I very much doubt they will look like today's labor unions.