Politics & Policy

Don’t Card-Check Democracy at the Door

The case for the secret ballot.

Most Americans take it for granted that we enjoy the right to cast a “secret ballot,” to vote our conscience in the privacy of the voting booth.

But some elections aren’t run that way.

In many instances, campaign workers for one candidate — and one candidate only — are able to come to your home and ask you to sign a card voting for their candidate. If you refuse, they can come back — again and again — as often as they want until you sign the card over to them. Only if you refuse to sign right up to Election Day would your vote go to the other candidate. If you should dare vote for the other side, the campaign workers would know and could spread the news of your “refusal to cooperate” to all of their supporters.

Sounds Orwellian, doesn’t it? Yet a bill has been filed in Congress that would give labor organizers the power to run unionization campaigns in this ham-fisted, one-sided fashion.

Traditionally workers have voted for or against union representation in secret-ballot elections overseen by the government. Recently, however, unions have taken to organizing workers using so-called “card-check” campaigns.

Under the card-check system, union organizers ask workers to sign a card publicly stating that they want to join a union. Once a majority of a company’s workers sign cards, the company is unionized. It’s that simple … and that open to abusive campaign practices.

Absent the privacy of the secret ballot, card-check campaigns leave workers exposed to high-pressure, coercive tactics of union organizers determined to get signatures, no matter what.

Congressional hearings over the years have documented just how far unscrupulous organizers are willing to go.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations two years ago, New Orleans labor lawyer Clyde H. Jacob III recounted multiple instances of harassment by union reps repeatedly visiting workers’ houses to solicit signatures. In one case, when the worker’s wife — alone at the time — didn’t answer the door, union reps circled the home several times, rapping on the windows before finally leaving. Another batch of reps pulled up to a worker’s house and began videotaping him and his property. No wonder many employees protested “that they signed cards just to stop the pressure and harassment,” Jacob testified.

In June 2002 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protection, employee Bruce Esgar discussed the tactics deployed in the Culinary Union’s card-check campaign at the MGM Grand Hotel. In addition to “hounding” for signatures at workers’ homes and dressing rooms, the organizers resorted to out-and-out lies and threats, Esgar reported. Some workers were told they would get help acquiring green cards if they signed. Others were told that signing would merely allow the union to send them information. Still others were told they would lose their health benefits or pensions, or even their jobs, if they didn’t sign the card before the union “got in.”

Given this history of abusive behavior, it’s no surprise that card-check results don’t always reflect workers’ true views about unionization. In recognition of this problem, current law allows employers to insist that the government hold a secret ballot election if they doubt a majority of their workers truly desire union representation.

Time and again, the secret ballot has allowed the majority of workers to express their true preference and reject unionization, even as the union reps claimed majority card-check support.

Now, organized labor and its political allies want to change that. The ironically named “Employee Free Choice Act” would ban secret-ballot elections and require employers to accept a card-check campaign as valid, even when they suspect the results don’t truly reflect their workers’ wishes.

The House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), has garnered 215 co-sponsors, including Georgia Reps. John Barrow, Sanford Bishop, John Lewis, Jim Marshall, Cynthia McKinney, and David Scott. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.), has attracted 42 co-sponsors, though neither of Georgia’s senators support it.

Foes of union coercion have introduced their own bill, the Secret Ballot Protection Act, sponsored by Georgia’s Rep. Charlie Norwood and Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) The bill is designed to protect not just workers’ right to participate in secret-ballot elections but also their equally fundamental right to be free from intimidation, threats, misinformation or coercion to “sign the card.”

A private, confidential ballot is central to American democracy. American workers must retain this right as well, so they might freely choose who will represent them in the workplace.

— James Sherk is a policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation .

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