Commentary | Unions and Labor Standards

Gingrich is just plain wrong on EFCA

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Newt Gingrich got some very basic facts wrong in his April 22 Politico fusillade against the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

Gingrich attacks the Employee Free Choice Act’s procedures for mediation and arbitration of first contracts between newly certified unions and management, but he does not appear to understand who the arbitrators would be.

Gingrich claims they would be “government bureaucrats in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).”  This is incorrect.  Gingrich is confusing the NLRB with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS).

Nor is this a minor mistake.  The FMCS is not staffed by “political appointees who in this administration will naturally favor union leaders,” as Gingrich would have us believe.  The FMCS has a well-earned reputation for impartiality between labor and management, and its staff is almost entirely career civil servants. 

These are not the only facts Gingrich gets wrong.  For example, it’s not true that arbitrators would necessarily impose contract terms on employers and employees.  The whole point of mediation, conciliation, and arbitration is to encourage the parties to voluntarily negotiate their own agreement, not to substitute for collective bargaining.

This is how first contract arbitration works in the Canadian private sector, where 80 percent of the workforce has access to procedures similar to those of the Employee Free Choice Act.  About 92 percent of new unions in Canada succeed in negotiating their own first contracts with management, compared to only 56 percent in the United States.

But the real target of Gingrich’s attack seems to be unions and union representation, and here again he gets his facts wrong.  He incorrectly claims that unions have bankrupted the industries they represent, and that increased union representation costs jobs.

In February, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) issued a briefing paper by economist Josh Bivens showing that U.S. manufacturing workers are highly productive, but the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing has been undermined by an overvalued U.S. dollar, exorbitant health care costs, and overpaid management.  Last month EPI published a paper by University of Michigan Economics Professor John DiNardo reviewing the existing economic literature that shows unionization has zero causal effect on business failure.

Gingrich relies on a poorly reasoned report by intellectual property and antitrust consultant Anne Layne-Farrar, which postulates that every three percentage point increase in union membership results in a one percentage point increase in unemployment in the following year.  Layne-Farrar’s model suggests that the drop in U.S. union density since the 1950s should have produced an unemployment rate near zero by 2009, but this is obviously not the case.  The Layne-Farrar report is simply crackpot economics.

Judging from these attacks, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Newt Gingrich simply does not favor workers freely choosing union representation. 

The debate over the Employee Free Choice Act needs to start from a different set of premises.  Most fundamentally, we should be discussing the actual provisions of the bill, not those imagined by Newt Gingrich. 

And we should start from the premise that workers have a right to freely choose union representation-a right that has been recognized, in theory at least, since 1935.  The issue we should be debating is how to guarantee that right in practice in the face of determined opposition by employers who simply do not support employee free choice.

See more work by Ross Eisenbrey