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The Right to Choose…Secretly

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At the age of eight, I watched my father vote in a contested election for his union’s leadership. Sitting across the folding table from him, watching to see how he voted, were members of the union leadership being challenged – the ones who decided which union members would be assigned to construction jobs each week.

Guess who won?

As youngsters, the notion of democracy and secret ballots are drilled into us: Voting is an immense privilege and the right to cast one’s ballot in secret, inviolable. Watching that right violated can leave a pretty deep impression.

We’re fortunate elections like that aren’t held any more, but it is likely that one of the first pieces of legislation to come out of the box in the new Congress will be an effort to remove a worker’s right to a secret ballot.

The bill in question is the strategically-named Employee Free Choice Act (better titled the “card check bill”). In fact, rather than giving employees free choice it would take their choices away, changing the system by which workers choose whether or not to form a union.

Under current law, if 30 percent of a company’s workers sign union authorization cards, a vote is administered by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), usually within two months. The vote is confidential. Unions and employers are able to explain their positions, workers are able to judge the merits of the arguments and their own experiences, and employees cast a secret ballot on the question.

But the proposed rewrite would revolutionize that system in ways not seen for more than 60 years: When half of employees simply sign authorization cards, the NLRB would be required to recognize the new union. No discussion of the issues. No secret ballot.

It’s a measure that would throw us back to the days when the fellow holding your paycheck got to watch you vote; unions and employees favoring unionization would be able to use peer pressure to get employees to sign the cards. Or at least that’s what former Senator George McGovern – a long time labor union supporter and former liberal Democratic presidential candidate – thought when he wrote: “There are many documented cases where workers have been pressured, harassed, tricked and intimidated into signing cards that have led to mandatory payment of dues.”

Signing a card is not the same as voting in secret, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (among others) has recognized that “workers sometimes sign union authorization cards not because they intend to vote for the union in the election, but to avoid offending the person who asks them to sign, often a fellow worker, or simply to get the person off their back.”

McGovern noted, too, that under this proposal “workers could lose the freedom to express their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal.” USA Today editorially noted “Without elections, workers who weren’t contacted by union organizers would have no say in the final outcome.”
Perhaps that’s why polls – conducted by both McLaughlin and Associates and Zogby International – consistently demonstrate that 9 out of 10 voters support ensuring that workers have the right to a federally supervised secret ballot election. Even among union members, the overwhelming indication (84 to 11 percent) is in favor of the secret ballot.
Even Senator-elect Mark Warner – who successfully dodged the issue during the campaign in order to secure union support – told the News Virginian editorial board that he found the elimination of secret ballots to be troubling.

And yet, the AFL-CIO leadership has made elimination of the secret ballot a top priority for the new Congress. And President-elect Obama was both a co-sponsor of the bill last year and pledged during the campaign to sign it. By all indications, it is on a fast track if its sponsors want to put it there.

Although a federal issue, it’s an important one for Virginians.

As a Right to Work state, the Commonwealth’s policy has long been to support the right of workers to decide for themselves whether or not to join or financially support a union, both as a matter of individual liberty and in recognition of the fact that the best state economies seem to be centered in Right to Work states.

Taking away the right to a secret ballot would be just the first chipping away of a long-held freedom, and the first step on a road back to a time we left behind.

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