Politics & Policy

Secret Voters

Congress makes a choice.

Americans enjoy so many rights and privileges, we sometimes seem to take them for granted. But if we aren’t willing to fight for them, they could easily be taken away. Consider, for instance, the secret ballot.

Fewer private-sector workers belong to a union today than at any point since the turn of the 20th century. So to boost their numbers, union activists want to organize through what’s known as a “card-check” system. Instead of continuing to allow workers to vote in government-supervised elections, workers would sign a union card.

Card check, though, redefines high-pressure tactics. Union organizers come to workers’ homes, give them a heavy-handed sales pitch and demand they sign the card. The union knows exactly which workers haven’t signed, and they return to their homes, again and again, until they give in.

It’s no surprise that unions find it’s easier to organize workers with card check. But they’re only allowed to use card-check if a company waives its employee’s right to a private vote, which few companies voluntarily do. That’s why Big Labor wants Congress to pass the ironically named “Employee Free Choice Act” — to abolish organizing elections and require workers to join a union using publicly signed cards.

How can they get away with this? Well, unions argue, the private-ballot process has broken down and needs to be abolished. But there’s no real evidence of that.

Sure, union leaders point to a poll that claimed 60 million non-union workers want to join a union and would if the system allowed them to. But that survey was dubious at best. It was commissioned by the AFL-CIO and conducted by a Democratic pollster whose methodology has never been released.

Publicly released polls by nonpartisan pollsters show very different results. Zogby polling shows that, by a 74 to 20 percent margin, non-union workers want to stay that way. Union membership is declining because most workers don’t want to join. If they wanted to join, they would, well, vote to do so.

But maybe not, the AFL-CIO insists. It claims employers systematically intimidate workers into voting against a union by illegally firing pro-union workers. It alleges this happens in one quarter of all organizing elections.

That number, however, comes from a survey of union organizers conducted by a former union organizer. Government statistics paint a completely different picture. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) records show that employers illegally fire workers in fewer than one in 50 election campaigns.

The AFL-CIO also claims there were “31,358 cases in 2005 of illegal firings and other discrimination against workers for exercising their federally protected labor law rights.” But no proof for that exists. The figure comes from an NLRB report on the number of employees who received board-ordered back pay.

Such cases seldom have anything to do with organizing campaigns or employer discrimination. The typical worker gets back pay when his employer makes “unilateral changes” to workplace conditions without first negotiating with the union. By claiming that every back-pay award represents compensation for workplace discrimination, the AFL-CIO misleadingly gives the impression of widespread employer misconduct.

Labor activists don’t explain how taking away the privacy of the ballot box would solve these alleged problems. Telling employers exactly which employees want to join a union could only facilitate corporate intimidation, if in fact that was a problem. And, of course, unions can also intimidate workers who chose not to join.

Unions insist the government has found only 42 cases of union coercion or forgery in the signing of union authorization cards in the last six decades. And the National Labor Relations Board has, in fact, only issued 42 rulings dealing with union forgery or coercion. However, that’s because very few cases make it all the way to the full board. Most are decided at lower levels of the NLRB bureaucracy.

And the truth is that union intimidation is the real problem facing workers. Just since the year 2000, workers have filed thousands of unfair-labor-practice charges against unions. Employees complain of violence, threats and coercion.

Private-ballot elections are largely free from employer misconduct. Some 70 percent of union members say the current private-ballot system is fair. Unions have little difficulty organizing workplaces where most workers want to join — they win three out of every five of organizing elections.

American workers deserve the right to join a union if they choose to. And they also deserve the right to choose in private, through a secret ballot. That’s the only way to assure that everyone’s rights are protected.

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


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