"It is, indeed, hard to defend the denial of an automatic secret ballot," writes the Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati. So why does Bhagwati come down on the side of doing just that, at least when it comes to the question of whether to form a union in a given workplace? In part, it's simply a matter of siding with the union that gets the causes of stagnating wages right (the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU), as Bhagwati sees it, over one that gets it wrong (the AFL-CIO).
In place of a secret ballot, Bhagwati -- like union leaders and many Democrats in Congress -- would like to see a "card check" system. Under such a system, workers could form a union if they gathered a certain number of names of their colleagues on a roster endorsing unionization. Avoiding public campaigns over unionization would make it harder for employers to threaten or fire labor organizers, card-check advocates say (a not-uncommon practice).
There's no doubt that blue-collar wages have stagnated. But Bhagwati writes that in recent years the AFL-CIO, especially, has blamed the wrong villains: foreign workers in developing countries. The logic is that the cheap goods they produce takes jobs from Americans. "There is," however, writes Bhagwati, "currently no compelling evidence that such trade is driving our real wages down." Still, the AFL-CIO endorses protectionism as one solution to its members' problems.
On the other hand, Bhagwati says, the SEIU seems more inclined to blame factors at home for stalled wages: factors like federal hostility to unions and employer meddling in labor organizing. Such obstacles have helped to shrink union membership from 23 percent of the workforce, in 1983, to 14 percent in 2003. (In the private sector, it's even lower.)
And, citing the work of Harvard economist Richard Freeman, among others, Bhagwati writes: "There is much evidence that increased [union] membership helps raise wages."
The majority of Bhagwati's peers in economics probably do not side with him on this issue. (Here's a list of economists who do endorse card check.)
But there's a clever lesser-of-two-evils pitch to his more-conservative colleagues lying at the heart of his essay (which appears in the New Republic). If there's one thing economists hate, it's protectionism. If, by granting unions card check, that might nudge them away from calling for bans on foreign goods it might be enough to get economists to give card check a second look.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.