An Op-ed piece By George McGovern in the Wall Street Journal says recent news that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has become a member of the Democratic caucus has given new life to legislation that many thought had been put to rest for this Congress — the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
Last year, I wrote on these pages that I was opposed to this bill because it would eliminate secret ballots in union organizing elections. However, the bill has an additional feature that isn’t often mentioned but that is just as troublesome — compulsory arbitration.
This feature would give the government the power to step into labor disputes where employers and labor leaders cannot reach an agreement and compel both sides to accept a contract. Compulsory arbitration is bound to trigger the law of unintended consequences.
Currently, labor law maintains a careful balance between the rights of businesses, unions and individual employees. While bargaining power differs depending on individual circumstances, the rights of the parties are well balanced. When a union and a business enter negotiations, current law requires that both sides bargain “in good faith.”
In a contract negotiation, each party typically perceives the other as too demanding. But no one loses their right to contract willingly or suffers being forced to agree to anything. Employees can strike if they feel that they have been dealt with unfairly, but it is a costly option. Employers are free to reject labor demands they find to be too difficult to accept, but running a business without experienced employees is itself difficult. Both sides have an incentive to press their demands, but they also have compelling reasons not to press their demands too far. EFCA would disrupt that balance by enabling government-appointed lawyers to decide what they believe is fair or reasonable.
A federally appointed arbitrator cannot be expected to understand the nuances specific to each business dispute, the competitive market position of the business, or the plethora of other factors unique to each case. Yet fundamental decisions on wages and benefit costs, rules for promotions, or even rules for exiting an unprofitable line of business could fall to federal arbitrators under EFCA.
Many labor contracts can run over 100 pages with their requirements of each party. Compulsory arbitration is, in one sense, government dictating to employees what they will win or lose in the deal, with no opportunity to approve the “agreement.” Why should employees pay union dues to get such a contract?
My perspective on the so-called Employee Free Choice Act is informed by life experience. After leaving the Senate in 1981, I spent some time running a hotel. It was an eye-opening introduction to something most business operators are all-too familiar with — the difficulty of controlling costs and setting prices in a weak economy. Despite my trust in government, I would have been alarmed by an outsider taking control of basic management decisions that determine success or failure in a business where I had invested my life savings.
When it comes to labor disputes, both parties should be guaranteed a real chance for compromise under the joint economic threat of contract breakdowns. George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1979, had it right in condemning mandatory arbitration as “an abrogation of freedom.”
My party has well-deserved majorities in both houses of Congress, and I am thankful to have an exceptional president in Barack Obama. But while the Democratic majority in Washington confers the power to reward our loyal supporters, today’s problems require solutions that transcend party politics. Even when that means taking unpopular stands.
Mr. McGovern is a former senator from South Dakota and the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate.