Big Labor's favorite tool

Intimidation is at the heart of unionism.

By Steven Miller
  • Friday, January 25, 2008

During and after the Nevada Democratic Party's divisive caucuses last week, both camps — Clinton/teacher union and Obama/Culinary union — accused the other of attempting to intimidate voters.

Significantly, however, the very caucusing system that permitted union members and others to be subjected to threats and intimidation had earlier been approved by the leadership of both unions.

What is unique about the system endorsed by those bosses and party elders is that it needlessly denies participants the opportunity to cast their ballots in secret. It's noteworthy that no charges of intimidation followed the Nevada GOP caucuses. That's because Republicans used the secret ballot.

Yes, Nevada Democrats wanted to copy the approach to caucuses used by Dems in Iowa. There, candidates who don't meet a "viability threshold" of, say, 15 percent, get winnowed out. Their supporters then have to select some other, more viable candidate.

But a secret ballot can handle viability concerns. Voters simply select not only a first choice, but also a second choice, or even a third. Then, when a candidate doesn't make the threshold, his voters' ballots go to their second choices. This approach — instant runoff voting — is increasingly used in many elections here in the U.S. and also around the world.

What a secret ballot cannot do, however, is replicate the dark side of the Iowa caucuses. That is, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, "give the whip hand to the moneyed political professionals" or "to the full-time party hacks and manipulators." Or in the words of Iowa journalists and freedom-of-information advocates, writing on the New York Times op-ed page, deny the public "access to factual information about how much support each Democratic candidate actually has" on caucus night.

Prominent within the dark side of the Iowa Dems' caucus system is how it facilitates union-boss intimidation, as Jeff Greenfield recently observed in Slate:

"What if you're in a union and want to pick someone your union hasn't endorsed, and your shop steward is there, watching you from across the room? ... Tough."

It's notable, also, that both Nevada unions were initially quite happy with the state party's highly undemocratic plan to establish special at-large precincts on the Vegas Strip for Culinary union members.

Under that scheme, Democrats in the Culinary precincts were assigned much higher numbers of delegates, proportionately, than the lowly Democrats in the normal precincts. To give the Culinary precincts disproportionate clout, state party officials awarded them delegates under formulas developed for entire, separate, Nevada counties.

Of course, when state teacher union bosses (allied with the Clinton campaign) learned that Culinary was endorsing Obama, suddenly the fat was in the fire. Suddenly the scheme was intolerable, and the lawyers were unleashed. Until then, however, all had agreed that effectively disempowering other party voters, in relative terms, was just fine.

To anyone aware of the history of U.S. unionism, such cynical shenanigans are no surprise. Behind the scenes, American unionism has always been, at root, about the conscious use of intimidation by a self-anointed select group to nullify the individual rights of other workers.

Indeed, Big Labor has legislation before Congress right now that is specifically designed to end workers' right to a secret ballot when unions want to take over a worksite. Ludicrously named the "Employee Free Choice Act," it would nullify workers' current ability to make free choices in private on whether or not they want their workplace unionized.

No longer would employees have the right to a secret ballot, supervised by the impartial National Labor Relations Board. Instead, workers' decisions about personal livelihood and family future would have to be made amid the peer pressure, harassment and — as Las Vegas has so often seen — ugly and violent confrontations fomented by union organizers.

The principle of intimidation is at the heart of unionism for a single, simple reason: The basic concept of unionism always has been to prevent other willing workers from competing for jobs — to generate a local monopoly, in effect, by intimidating other workers (and employers, too), and then using that monopoly to compel higher-than-market wages for favored members of the union.

Indeed, intimidation is the essence of so-called "collective bargaining." The latter — enshrined in federal law by the National Labor Relations Act during the 1930s — is merely the bargaining of a self-selected group that asserts the implicit threat of violence, embodied in the picket line, to keep any outside workers from bargaining.

Of course, if the bargaining were truly collective, it would give a voice to all workers at the gate.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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