Pat Toomey

is president of the Club for Growth and a former Pennsylvania congressman

The nation's most powerful labor unions have been lobbying heavily for a law, misleadingly named the Employee Free Choice Act, that would take away workers' basic rights to a secret-ballot vote on union representation. It would allow unions to organize through a poorly regulated "card-check" process instead.

Many politicians have been falsely characterizing the card-check law as an essential part of an economic-recovery program. In reality, it would deepen the recession.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is the only Republican who has joined the Democratic senators voting to advance the legislation. That isn't the kind of leadership a state with a broad industrial base needs.

By stripping workers of their rights, the act would undermine businesses and workers, causing further declines in American employment and productivity in an economy that desperately needs both.

Labor unions can play a constructive role as bargaining agents for workers, provided they are accountable to their members through a democratic process. But compulsory membership, monopoly privileges, and unchecked power can harm the workers whom unions are supposed to help.

The Big Three car companies are a case in point. Unfortunately, if card check becomes law, some of the factors behind the collapse of Detroit's automakers may help ruin the employers in your town, too.

The Employee Free Choice Act actually would take away employees' choices by essentially forcing them to unionize. Despite the claims of this legislation's advocates, it is a relatively simple matter to form a union under current law. If there is authentic employee support for unionizing, then organizers need only win a majority of votes in a private balloting process.

The legislation at issue would replace the freedoms protected by fair elections with the intimidating, divisive card-check policy. Workers could be directed to sign authorization forms in public - in front of coworkers and union officials. The opportunities for intimidation and coercion are obvious.

As Americans, we know that the right to a secret ballot is a cornerstone of a democratic society. Any proposal to deny voters a secret ballot in presidential, congressional or local elections would be considered ludicrous. So why should workers voting on their fates in the workplace be denied the same fundamental right?

Once this card-check procedure puts a union in place, mandatory dues would be deducted from workers' paychecks. Surely, middle-class families can't afford to lose more of their hard-earned income against their will.

The law also would invite more of the kind of government overreaching we have seen in Detroit. For instance, it calls for government arbitrators to resolve contracts without votes by workers.

That's one of several ways in which our communities would be increasingly manipulated by outsiders under this legislation. Forget about small local unions with deep ties to local workers and businesses. With the lack of accountability that card check would bring about, directives would come top-down from national and international labor unions. Local unions could be subsumed by their national headquarters, which may be ignorant of local economic conditions, regional growth, or job creation.

That's one of the basic problems with the Employee Free Choice Act: It treats all businesses and all communities the same, regardless of the nature of local economies or the needs of local workers.

The card-check legislation takes what the private sector does best - job creation - and puts it in the hands of people who have never created a single job. Jobs aren't created by government arbitrators or union bosses; they're created by the small businesses and local entrepreneurs who would be hit hardest by this law.

Even though most Americans - and even a majority of union members - think fair workplace elections conducted by secret ballot are preferable to card check, Congress doesn't seem to be listening. And given the economic crisis, this is precisely the wrong time to be sacrificing the interests of American businesses and workers.

The government will likely step in to save the auto industry because of the prevailing belief that it's too big to fail. But if the auto industry can be brought to the brink by big labor, what about America's small businesses? By definition, they are small enough to fail, leading to lost jobs and investment.

That's why stopping the Employee Free Choice Act is an important part of any economic-recovery plan. Let's hope Congress realizes that before it's too late.

Pat Toomey ran against Arlen Specter for the Republican Senate nomination in 2004. E-mail: pattoomey@clubforgrowth.org.