Thursday, November 13, 2008

Democrats' agenda: fairness and unfairness

As Democrats in the House and Senate plan what to do when reinforcements arrive in January with a new Democratic President, they are mainly focused on the economy. But at least two non-economic items appear to be high on their wish list -- "card check" for unions and a return to the "fairness doctrine" in TV and radio broadcasting.

Fairness: Conservatives fret a lot about card check, charging that without the currently required secret ballot to authorize a union bargaining agent in a workplace, employees won't be able to resist union bullies or peer pressure. It would unfair and undemocratic to strip Americans of their precious right to vote in secret, they argue.

The trouble is that the current set-up makes it close to impossible to organize a union in the workplaces that most need one -- and damn hard anywhere else. After a union has spent a huge amount of time and effort to sign up enough workers to trigger an NLRB-supervised election, everything usually grinds to a halt, as employers bombard the union with charges of "unfair labor practices," each of which has to be disposed of through a complex process. Of course, the union can and usually does levy unfair labor practice charges, too, in a tit for tat effort to gain an edge.

If and when the NLRB election is finally set so those secret ballots can be cast, the employer typically runs a hard-sell campaign. This often means offering incentives -- positive changes designed to undermine the union's support. It has often also meant some pretty heavy-handed stuff designed to intimidate employees.

This process can take so long that the entire workforce turns over, as employees leave and new people are hired, so that the union has to keep seeking support from new arrivals. In the kind of dreadful workplace in dire need of a union -- like one of those meat processing factories that employ mostly Latino workers -- the turnover of mostly unskilled people can be constant.

Card check is not going to reverse the ongoing decline in union membership, but it will make it possible to introduce some fairness into places badly in need of some.

Unfairness: For reasons that escape me, many otherwise sensible Democrats are determined to reinstitute the so-called "fairness doctrine" in broadcasting, the principal result of which would be to force radio stations to drop opinionated talk shows, which are overwhelmingly conservative.

I guess Rush Limbaugh drives them to distraction. In any case, every effort to launch successful liberal talks shows (like Air America) have bombed. So the answer seems to be to knock the right off the radio.

This is a really stupid idea. It's easy for the right to characterize this as an attack on free speech -- because it is.

The fairness doctrine (which required a broadcaster to offer a balance of views, if any opinions were aired) made some sense when the ownership of a franchise to use the publicly owned airwaves conferred near-monopoly control over the single most powerful way to reach millions. That ended with the advent of universal cable TV access. More recently, we've seen the birth of satellite radio as a commercially viable communications alternative. Perhaps most significantly, the Internet now offers an entirely new competing vehicle, one that many think played a decisive role in this year's national election.

With a wide array of alternatives, there is no longer any communications monopoly to control with the tight content restrictions of the old fairness doctrine. If the Democrats move to restore the doctrine, conservative talk hosts will raise holy cain about a heavy-handed attempt to shut them up. Most Americans likely will agree that if it's not suppression of free speech, it's certainly unfair.


  1. Hear, hear!
    In 1985, the FCC concluded after reviewing an extensive notice-and-comment record that the existance and occasional enforcement of the so-called Fairness Doctrine had generally deterred broadcasters from presenting commentary on controversial issues. The FCC also found that in at least one case the Doctrine had been deliberately used to squelch a prominent critic of a certain presidential administration.

    If Pelosi, Reid, and Obama resurrect the Fairness Doctrine, there's a good chance the Supreme Court will nullify it on First Amendment grounds.

  2. If unionization elections are too cumbersome, then I have no objections to a fair and sensible streamlining of the process. But getting rid of secret ballots is a ridiculous idea, and merely opens the way for peer pressure and thuggery.