Card Check Comes To Campus

Labor unions have suffered a number of defeats in recent years, but they hope to regain momentum by gaining passage of the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to secure votes for unionization, mainly through a mechanism called “card check.” Card check would replace the traditional method of unionization by eliminating secret ballots when employees vote for or against unionization. “Card check” would allow the signing of cards without the benefit of secrecy, perhaps even in the presence of pro-union activists. Will employees actually make free, unfettered choices in the face of union organizers who present them with cards? Or is the “Free Choice Act” but the latest historical incarnation of Newspeak?
Card check is in some trouble in Washington, but similar policies are having more success at the state level. A prominent example is Wisconsin, which has recently enacted such legislation regarding the University of Wisconsin. The policy is part of a larger pro-union package in the state.
Recently Governor Jim Doyle signed the state’s 2009-2011 biennial budget, which includes a provision that gives collective bargaining rights to over 20,000 UW System faculty, academic staff, and research assistants. As of this writing, the faculty members of all UW System schools except UW-Madison have passed resolutions favoring the right to decide on unionization. Madison will no doubt deal with this issue in the fall; but even if Madison faculty members vote to have the right to decide, it is not evident that they will ultimately vote to unionize, for reasoned arguments exist on both sides of this question.


The basic question of unionization is one thing. The means chosen to decide present another, equally important question. Two aspects of the new Wisconsin law raise normative concerns in this regard. First, one provision gives 3,200 research assistants the right, in the words of the American Federation of Teachers website, “to determine whether they want bargaining representation through the state’s first card check-off process.” It is unclear at this point how this card check process would work, but without clear guidance regarding the methods to be employed, disquiet about coercion or fettered choice are not unreasonable.
The second matter raises even stronger concerns. Additional language was added to the bill that would have given the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission more authority to unilaterally re-assign academic staff and (potentially) faculty members to “classified” designations, thereby making them members of a union—even though such individuals have never been given an opportunity to vote on any issue pertaining to collective bargaining. Governor Doyle vetoed this provision, but union representatives have nonetheless pursued a “unit clarification” drive, which has pressured the university to reclassify on its own initiative staff members based on various job-related criteria. If successful, this effort would automatically sweep up to 4000 academic staff members into union membership.
At least card check gives an employee a choice, however encumbered. Unit clarification does not. This is one reason that university leaders have spoken out against the latter policy. Among others, PROFS, Inc., the leading lobby group for faculty members at UW-Madison, protested unit clarification in a letter written to the governor that it shared with leading legislators. PROFS called the policy a back-handed power grab by the union, and spoke about the “deep resentment” among staff whose employment status has been or would be altered without their consent.
But union activists are feeling their oats. “We’ve had the same legislation introduced in the three previous legislative cycles,” noted AFT-Wisconsin’s president. “Each time, we’ve had a chance to educate people and bring them around.” Meanwhile, the co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association at Madison remarked, “This is just tremendous. It doubles the potential size of AFT-Wisconsin. It gives us the chance to make a quantum leap forward in terms of the strategic roles we play in organizing workers and in affecting things in the state.”
It will be interesting to follow the vicissitudes of Wisconsin’s labor relations in the upcoming academic year, for much is at stake for both the university and the nation. Independent of the advisability of deepening unionization, the Wisconsin case raises important questions about the means being employed to achieve this end. Do card check and unit clarification further liberal ends, or are they Orwellian means that undermine liberal principles of free, informed choice? If these measures succeed at Wisconsin, what road will this help to take our liberal democracy down? And are such policies consistent with the principles of free thought and non-coercion that lie at the foundation of liberal education?

Donald A. Downs

Donald A. Downs

Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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