Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

The 30-50 Myth

Unions, and their friends in Congress, must have figured out that eliminating workers’ access to secret ballot votes for more than 100 million working Americans wasn’t popular. Go figure. That is probably why they are pushing the line that the deceptively-named Employee Free Choice Act “does not strip workers of their right to choose a secret-ballot election to decide whether to select — or not to select — a union representative.


To justify that, union bosses deceptively suggest that unions will still call for elections with less than a majority of a bargaining unit’s signed authorization cards. But their own words belie their true intentions, not to mention their unions’ own internal policies.

Technically, under EFCA the only statutory possibility of holding an election is if a union submits a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with signed cards from more than 30% of a bargaining unit, but less than a majority. Specifically, the bill states that:

If the Board finds that a majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for bargaining has signed valid authorizations … the Board shall not direct an election but shall certify the individual or labor organization as the representative described in subsection (emphasis added)

I call this the “30-50 Myth.” And that’s just what it is, a myth. While there may be some mention of elections remaining in the legislation, they will become the appendix of union organizational campaigns—there, but an unused vestige of days gone by.

Frankly, it defies logic—and I’m going to give union leaders the benefit of the doubt here—to suggest that a union that is incapable of getting cards from 50% of the employees would go to an election where they expect an additional 25% fall off. In fact, the AFL-CIO admitted that “It is not until the union obtains signatures from 75% or more of the unit that the union has more than a 50% likelihood of winning the election.”

What union organizer would risk losing an election—and thus being barred from redoubling his or her efforts to unionize the company—with less than a majority of employees’ signed cards? None.

But don’t take my word for it. I did some additional research to examine unions’ internal policies on how many cards they typically gather before calling for an honest-to-goodness election. I’ll let the unions and their advisors speak for themselves :


Teamsters, Airline Division:
“Petitioning for a representation election requires a showing that 35 percent of the eligible employees have signed cards. However, the general policy of the Airline Division is to file for a representation election only after receiving a 65-percent card return from the eligible voters in a group.”

Motion Picture Editors Guild:
“The signing of authorization cards is a very significant part of the campaign. The cards confirm that a majority of the bargaining unit is committed to forming a union. While not a hard and fast rule, ideally, we like to see between 70 and 80 percent of the crew sign (see counter-campaign). While the EMPLOYER WILL NOT SEE WHO SIGNED THE CARDS, the employer will know how many cards were signed. The more cards we have, the stronger our messages.”

Security, Police, Fire Professionals of America union:
“Signed pledge cards typically are needed from at least 30 percent of the employees to trigger an NLRB-sanctioned election. Maritas said the SPFPA’s policy is to collect pledge cards from at least 70 percent of the workers before filing an election petition.”

New England Nurses Association:
“Have 70–75 percent of members sign cards; if unable to reach this goal, review plan.”

Description of the UFCW’s activity:
“At the meeting, the union organizers verbally indicated that they had withdrawn the petition because they had originally had the support of 70% of the staff but now felt that they did not represent a clear majority and would not feel comfortable with a union in the store which only represent ed slightly more than half of the workforce at the store.”

Graphic Communicators Conference of the Teamsters:
“To obtain an election through the services of the NLRB, at least 30 percent of the employees in the bargaining unit must sign authorization cards for a valid petition. As a practical matter, the GCC/IBT prefers about 70 percent of the eligible voters to have signed cards.”

Other Articles

Book, Reorganizing the Rust Belt, page 38:
“…the rule of thumb in the SEIU is that it’s unwise to file for an election when fewer than 70 percent of the workforce have signed interest cards.”

Samuel Estreicher, labor lawyer and New York University Law School professor, in the book The Future of Private Sector Unionism in the United States, page 325:
“It is no surprise we win only 50 percent of NLRB elections (even though we normally wait for card signatures from 70 percent of more of the work force before filing a petition).”

State University of New York-Binghamton Professor of Political Science David Cingranelli in book Justice on the Job:
“In modern practice, union organizers usually collect card from 60 to 70 percent of the workers in the bargaining union before proceeding to the next step.”

Texas Bar Journal, May 2007:
“If the union was able to establish workers’ support of the union by a showing of signed union authorization cards from at least 30 percent of workers, it could petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election. However, because employee support for unions typically wanes in the weeks leading up to an election, unions generally sought to obtain 50 percent to 70 percent or more of the signed union authorization cards before seeking an election.”

Categories: Center for Union FactsEFACEnding Secret BallotsUncategorized