Federal union bill would hurt Tennessee's small businesses

Friday, February 20, 2009

Unions haven't been an issue in Tennessee, but that would change overnight if Congress passes a bill making it easier for unions to organize.

It wouldn't matter that we're a right-to-work state with one of the lowest union membership rates in the country--5.5 percent, according to the latest federal figures.

If union bosses and their friends in Congress get their way, union membership would soar as workers are robbed of the right to cast secret ballots on whether to organize.

Today, employees get to vote in secret on whether to organize, so they're protected from union intimidation.

The unions, though, are pushing for something called the Employee Free Choice Act. This cleverly misnamed bill would replace secret-ballot elections with a very public process called "card check."

Union bosses want the power to organize a workplace simply by "persuading" a majority of workers to sign a card. Union organizers could approach workers in the parking lot or even at home and bully them into the signing cards.

They may call it the Employee Free Choice Act, but in practice, it would be the Employee Forced Choice Act.

Once the union had enough signatures, a business would have no choice but to sign a contract. If a business fails to come to terms with the union within 120 days, a federal bureaucrat would step in and dictate wages and other benefits.

As Tennessee state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, I believe this is the wrong time for Congress to pass any legislation that would make it harder for businesses to grow and create jobs.

Some in the legislature and in Congress may feel obliged to vote for card check because of union support in the last election.

But when the card-check bill was last before Congress, in 2007, 89 percent of those surveyed by the respected polling firm of McLaughlin & Associates were in favor of secret-ballot elections. Only 6 percent preferred the public process that would occur under card check.

Despite this overwhelming public opposition, however, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Employee Free Choice Act by a vote of 241-185. In the Senate, supporters failed to get the 60 votes needed to allow a vote on the bill.

But the unions aren't giving up. Card check is high on their political agenda, and their influence on Capitol Hill has only grown.

I am especially concerned about what all this means to small, family-owned businesses.

People seem to think that anyone who owns a business is rich, but there's a big difference between an auto plant and a repair shop. Our members aren't rich--some do better than others, but most of them are simply trying to make a decent living.

The truth is small business owners work for a living. They do the books, but they also sweep up and take out the trash. They're struggling with everything from higher fuel costs to finding--and keeping--affordable health insurance. Small business owners take pride in the work they do and in treating their employees fairly. They're not making piles of money, but they believe in taking care of the people who work for them.

If Big Labor and some members of Congress have their way, these small businesses--and the people who work for them--would have unions shoved down their throats.

If the unions and federal bureaucrats get to decide how much a small business pays its employees and what benefits it gives them, small business owners are going to have to make some tough decisions.

They're going to have to decide whether they can afford to grow. They're going to have to decide whether they can afford to add jobs. They're going to have to decide whether they can even afford to stay in business.

We must defend small, family-owned businesses from organized labor, especially now, when the country is mired in the worst recession in a generation. We must tell our members of Congress to vote "no" on the Employee Free Choice Act.

Secret ballots are a sacred part of the democratic process. They're how we elect the president and Congress, the governor and the General Assembly. Let's not throw them away simply to prop up the unions.

Jim Brown is state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee's leading small business association.