Analyst in Labor Policy
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA) gives private sector workers the right to join or form a labor union and to bargain collectively over wages, hours, and other working conditions. An issue before Congress is whether to change the procedures under which a union is certified as the bargaining representative of a union chosen by a majority of workers.
Under current law, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducts a secret ballot election when a petition is filed requesting one. A petition can be filed by a union, worker, or employer. Workers or a union may request an election if at least 30% of workers have signed authorization cards (i.e., cards authorizing a union to represent them). The NLRA does not require secret ballot elections. An employer may voluntarily recognize a union if a majority of workers have signed authorization cards.
Once a union is certified or recognized, the NLRA does not require the union and employer to reach an initial contract agreement. When a union and employer cannot reach an agreement on a contract, instead of a strike or lockout the parties may use mediation and arbitration to resolve the dispute.
In recent Congresses, legislation has been introduced that, if enacted, would change current union certification procedures. For example, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which was introduced in the 111th Congress, would have required the NLRB to certify a union if a majority of employees signed authorization cards (i.e., “card check”). The Secret Ballot Protection Act, which was introduced in the 113th Congress, would have made it an unfair labor practice for an employer to recognize or bargain with a union without a secret ballot election.
Supporters and opponents of card check sometimes use similar language to support their positions. Employers argue that, under card check certification, workers may be pressured or coerced into signing authorization cards and may only hear the union’s point of view. Unions argue that, during an election campaign, employers may pressure or coerce workers into voting against a union. Supporters of secret ballot elections argue that casting a secret ballot is private and confidential. Unions argue that, during an election campaign, employers have greater access to workers. Unions argue that card check certification is less costly than a secret ballot election. Employers maintain that unionization may be more costly to workers, because union members must pay dues and higher union wages may result in fewer union jobs.
Requiring card check certification may increase the level of unionization, while requiring secret ballot elections may decrease it. Research suggests that, where card check recognition is required, unions undertake more union drives and the union success rate is higher. The union success rate is also greater where recognition is combined with a neutrality agreement (i.e., an agreement where the employer agrees to remain neutral during a union organizing campaign).
To the extent that requiring secret ballot elections or requiring certification when a majority of employees sign authorization cards would affect the level of unionization, the economic effects may depend on how well labor markets fit the model of perfect competition. Requiring card check certification may improve worker benefits and reduce earnings inequality—if more workers are unionized. Requiring secret ballot elections may increase inequality in compensation—if fewer workers are unionized.
Date of Report: November 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 36
Order Number: RL32930
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