Autoline on Autoblog with John McElroy

For years, there's been a drumbeat of media reports about sliding union membership. Today fewer than 12% of American workers belong to a union. Twenty years ago it was close to twice that. And this is why a number of auto industry experts believe the United Auto Workers union is a spent force.
Sounds logical. The Detroit automakers have been shrinking their workforce for nearly two decades and got rid of over 100,000 employees just in the last two years. Meanwhile, foreign automakers invested billions to build dozens of factories and hired tens of thousands of Americans to work in them. Then they successfully slapped aside every effort by the UAW to organize those plants.

But the UAW is likely to get a legislative gift that could make it much easier to get all those workers in the transplants to join the union.
You may not have heard much about it yet, but it'll become a major political hot potato in 2009. It's called The Employee Free Choice Act, though it's familiarly known as the "card check."

A card check is a much easier way to get a union into a plant or company. All you have to do is get a majority of workers in a factory to sign a card that says they want a union. So how does that differ from what we do now? Today, you have to hold an election with secret ballots, just like any other public election. It's a basic tenet of our democracy.

But the UAW found out the hard way that people at a non-union plant will say they want a union when their fellow workers are standing around. But when they step into a private polling booth and check the secret ballot, they vote against the union. That's why almost none of the transplants have been organized. And that's why the unions want to get rid of the secret ballot and simply go with a signature on a card.

Quite a few Democrats in Congress are on the unions' side. They're eager to enact legislation that would mandate a simple card check to unionize a plant. And while they have a majority of votes in Congress today, it's still not enough to overcome President Bush's veto. So they look forward to this fall's election because their confidence is growing that they can grab the White House, pad their lead in the House and maybe gain some seats in the Senate.

So let's fast forward a little over a year from now and imagine an auto industry faced with a law making it very easy to organize a lot of the nonunion plants. That doesn't automatically mean that workers in those plants will openly welcome the UAW, but it sure makes it a lot more likely than it's been in the past.

The foreign automakers truly believe that not having the UAW in their plants gives them an advantage over the Detroit Three. The Employee Free Choice Act will make it a lot harder for them to hold on to that position. And what an interesting turn of events that could produce!


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