What if?

Would the Employee Free Choice Act have saved the lives of those coal miners in West Virginia? I guess we’ll never know.

If the Employee Free Choice Act had been law, Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine would have been unionized. More than 70% of the miners had signed union cards, but CEO Don Blankenship threatened to close the mine if they voted the union in. Would the 29 miners killed last week be alive today if they’d had union backing to complain about the unsafe conditions that led to the explosion? We’ll never know.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “What if?”

  1. Upper Big Branch South is, incidentally, just a few miles from the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain. We're back where we started.

  2. Or maybe it would have been closed…

    70% of the miners signed the cards, and then when they got a chance to cast a secret ballot, the union lost. This is NOT an argument in favor of card check. It's evidence that people who don't want to be unionized feel more free to vote against the union if the union can't identify who they are when they do it.

  3. Or, Brett, it might be evidence that people who do want to be unionized feel more free to vote for unions when they don't have company goons breathing down their necks. When you know that the guy threatening you has already bought the seat of at least one member of the state supreme court, faith in the rule of law only goes so far.

  4. Brett, this is an empirical question (albeit one complicated by the deaths of so many of the miners). You're saying Blankenship's threats before the vote were ineffective in producing the difference between the card tally & the vote. You state very definitely that the difference is evidence that miners didn't express their true sentiments by card, for fear of the union, but I doubt you have the least good reason to deny that Blankenship's threats caused them to change their vote.

    Ninety years ago, miners attempting to unionize in adjacent Logan Co. were subjected to aerial bombardment, the only time Americans have been bombed on American soil. Owners still fight dirty around there, & the price is still counted in miners' lives.

  5. Would the 29 miners killed last week be alive today if the mine owner had closed the mine after they'd voted the union in?

  6. It’s evidence that people who don’t want to be unionized feel more free to vote against the union if the union can’t identify who they are when they do it.

    Don't be ridiculous. Do you really believe the threats to close the mine had no effect?

  7. No, I don't think they were without effect. Neither do I assume that whatever promises the union made were without effect.

    What I assume is that, if people vote one way when you're watching them vote, and vote a different way when they can vote in secret, this is NOT evidence that they shouldn't be voting in secret. It's evidence that they should be permitted to.

    That everybody simply assumes that a secret ballot, with the potential for individual retaliation removed, works against the union, is a tacit admission that workers are more afraid of individualized retaliation from the union, than the employer.

    This is a very basic issue: If you're opposed to the secret ballot, I'm opposed to you.

  8. Let's look at this logically:

    You're concerned that the company's threat to close the plant influenced the result of the secret ballot election. Card check obviously doesn't get in the way of the plant being closed, compared to a secret ballot. It's as easy or hard to close a plant after either sort of certification.

    So you're concerned that the secret ballot election enabled the threat itself. But it is not immediately obvious how the mechanics of an election could prevent a generalized threat of this nature. Secret ballots make threats of individual retaliation implausible. That, after all, is the point of them. But card check doesn't prevent generalized threats. With card check elections you get BOTH sorts of threats. So objecting to secret ballots on the basis of threats makes no sense, on the face of it.

    The only way the secret ballot election enables threats by the company, is that there is some time elapsing between the cards being collected, and the secret ballot election. Time during which the company knows the union is organizing. Time during which they could as easily make promises, as threats.

    They'd have that time if the company had to be provided notice a decent interval before the union started circulating the cards, too. So card check doesn't inherently deny them that time, doesn't inherently prevent generalized threats by the company. It only does that if the cards are circulated without the company being told.

    So, what you're really objecting to is that the workers get time to hear from the company before voting, right? You want the workers to vote having heard from only one side.

    That is not a concern I have any respect for. That's just another way of rigging an election.

  9. “I’m opposed to you?” Christ, Brett, get a grip. It isn’t healthy to get grandiloquent every time someone points out that you’ve hung your argument on a false inference.

    Again, it’s not true that whenever card-check & secret election have different outcomes, the difference is attributable to, or evidence of, workers’ fear of expressing their (stable) true preferences by card-check (for fear of union retribution). As you now acknowledge, other intervening factors can cause workers’ true preference to change. At Upper Big Branch South, Don Blankenship’s threats intervened.

    But you still insist that the different outcomes are evidence that the law should require follow-up secret elections. This isn’t true under the circumstances that actually obtained at Upper Big Branch South.

    One needn’t be committed to any of the positive arguments for card-check that you supply to see that your own claim fails.

  10. I would assert that I've never heard an argument yet in favor of denying people the secret ballot, that didn't amount to wanting to somehow rig an election, or open it up to intimidation. Usually some combination of the two. I certainly haven't seen one provided here.

  11. Why the heck should the company have any input whatsoever in the decision of workers to organize and collectively bargain? Do the workers get a say in the company's decision to open new business units, or put more shares on the market?

    I'd hate to see the freakout at Brett's place when he and some friends are trying to order a pizza and decide on toppings by a show of hands.

  12. The company doesn't have "input", in the sense of determining their choice. It's not a matter of denying the company the chance to speak, but of denying the workers the chance to hear what the company has to say.

    I can understand why you wouldn't want them hearing from the company. Heck, you wouldn't want the voters hearing from the GOP this fall, either. But why you'd think for even a fleeting instant that it was a reasonable policy is what's got me puzzled.

  13. Brett, the idea that miners might be deprived of Don Blankenship’s views on unions is precious.

    Ideally, you want to be concerned about both intimidation and freedom of speech & association. You do not want to appear, where workers’ freedom is at issue, to be concerned only about intimidation by them, & where intimidation by employers is at issue, to be concerned only about their freedom.

    But I trust you will continue your unsleeping search for evidence of intimidation at Upper Big Branch South. (Also, OJ Simpson is looking for the real killer.)

    Who here, specifically, are you saying “wouldn’t want voters hearing from the GOP”? Anyone at all?

  14. The idea that deliberately designing the system to deny the workers input from anybody but the union could ever be legitimate is something, but I wouldn't call it "precious".

    And it's a reasonable supposition that people who think workers voting after only hearing from one side is a good idea, would extend that notion to other voting situations.

  15. Brett, your live can only get better if you learn to resist your habit of attributing foul motives to people who disagree with you.

  16. "Brett, your live can only get better if you learn to resist your habit of attributing foul motives to people who disagree with you."

    Just trying to fit in here, that assumption is SOP on the part of 'liberals', from what I've seen.

  17. "And it’s a reasonable supposition that people who think workers voting after only hearing from one side is a good idea"

    The idea that the company ownership is a "side" in deciding whether to unionize is complete, unfettered stupidity, akin to the idea that factory employees are a "side" in deciding whether to take a company public. Anyone older than ten years older can probably understand this without additional explanation.

    Your two sides are: Workers who think they should be in a union, and workers who think they should not. Or do you suppose that, even given a secret ballot, anyone but the actual workers should actually get to vote on the union question?

    If you don't get to vote in the actual decision-making process, how on god's green earth are you a "side" in the decision at all?

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