Years ago, the first week I hired in as a member of the United Auto Workers union at Ford’s Rouge Plant, three big galoots crowded around me. “You need to kick in $20 for paycheck-poker this week,” one grunted.

“What’s paycheck-poker?” I asked. He explained how the “hand” you get dealt is made up of the last three serial numbers of your paycheck, along with the cents on your take-home pay. Those five numbers are your poker hand. You can combine them into two of a kind, three of a kind, a full house, straight, etc.

“Oh, I get it,” I said brightly, “But, gosh fellas, I think I’ll just pass on this one. I’m not really a gambler.”

All three lumbered in a step closer, close enough to be in what I would call “my space.” It was intimidating.

“You don’t seem to understand. Everybody kicks in 20 bucks every week,” one said firmly.

I catch on quickly. “Sign me up for paycheck-poker,” I cheerfully replied. And every week, I kicked in $20 to the kitty, even though I never won a hand. In fact, I never met anyone who won.

And that brings me to this movement by the unions to get a “card check” as a way of unionizing a factory. A “card check” is a much easier way to organize a plant. All you have to do is get a majority of workers in the place to sign a card that says they want a union.

How is that different?

Today, you have to hold an election with secret ballots, just like any other public election. It’s a basic tenet of our democracy.

But the unions have found out the hard way that people will say they want a union when their fellow workers are standing around, yet when they vote privately in a booth, most vote otherwise. That’s why the unions want to get rid of the secret ballot. They want their galoots to get people to sign cards.

So do their Democrat friends in Congress who are eager to vote in legislation that would mandate a simple card check to unionize a plant. And while they have a majority of votes in Congress today, it’s not enough to overcome a Bush veto. So they look forward to the 2008 elections, when they could easily grab the presidency, pad their lead in the House and maybe gain some seats in the Senate.

So let’s fast-forward two years and imagine auto makers faced with a law making it very easy to organize a lot of the nonunion plants. Couldn’t and wouldn’t the UAW now go with extra vigor after suppliers and especially the foreign transplants? What an interesting turn of events that could produce!

Unless, of course, more people wake up to the fact that this concept of a “card check” is nothing more than a move to eliminate the secret ballot, one of the most fundamental principles upon which our democracy is based.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit and Speed Channel.