Wednesday, October 1, 2008

An attack on the secret ballot

The issue nobody’s talking about


OK, you want to talk issues. You're tired of talking personalities, character, experience and Sarah Palin's eyewear. You've had it contemplating whether Barack Obama's or John McCain's campaign ads are more full of lies and distortions. You're above all this bunkum. You want to talk about some substantive difference between the two presidential candidates that could shape the way we live—that could alter some basic American value—in the decades to come.

So here's the issue. It's a big one that's below the surface and not getting a lot of attention, and it's not the racial issue. It's called card check.

Right now, when some workers are interested in having a union represent them, a private ballot election is most often held. These elections are overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, which established procedures to ensure that the elections are fair and free of fraud and employer-employee coercion.

Organized labor and its allies would like to change this and force workers to "vote" in front of union organizers and work colleagues who favor unionization. Their reasons are all too obvious. Their means of achieving this is the card-check election and the misnamed "Employee Free Choice Act."

The legislation would abolish a worker's right to a federally monitored ballot election with secret ballots. Instead, a union would be allowed to organize if a majority of a company's workers sign a card. Who would monitor the "card check" process? Nobody, really, though a worker's vote would be made public to the employer, co-workers and union organizers.

Gone would be an individual employee's privacy. Gone would be a worker's right to make a decision on unionization without fear or favor. You'd have to sign the card or not in front of a fellow worker. You'd have to reveal to one and all your thoughts on joining a union. So much for the secret ballot.

Peer pressure, intimidation, the desire to get a signature gatherer off your back—any of this could prompt a worker to sign on the dotted line and make a decision he or she might not make in the privacy of the voting booth.

Question: How can this legislation be called the Employee Free Choice Act anywhere this side of George Orwell's "1984"?

In fact, the Employee Free Choice Act's "card check" would do more than put an end to the secret ballot for workers. It would in some sense disenfranchise many people in their workplace's decision to unionize. Union organizers would have to come up with the signatures of only half of all workers. In this rolling referendum, once union organizers have enough signatures on the authorization cards, the decision's made. The process is over.

And guess who keeps the signed authorization cards until the majority mark is reached? Union organizers.

On these issues, there's more than a dime's worth of difference between the two presidential candidates this year. Obama supports card check. "We're ready to play offense for organized labor," he told the AFL-CIO. McCain opposes it. He calls it "a poorly disguised attempt by the labor unions to swell their ranks at the expense of workers' rights and employers."

And, whether you favor card check or the private ballot, the two presidential candidates' differences on this one issue could have a profound and tangible impact on American business, labor and politics for years to come.

Many congressional Democrats and friends of organized labor seem to understand the importance of the private ballot and the risk of worker intimidation in its absence—when it comes to Mexico. "We understand that the private ballot is allowed for, but not required by Mexican labor law," Rep. George Miller and 15 other members of Congress, including Dennis Kucinich, Bernard Sanders and Barney Frank, wrote to Mexican officials in 2001. "However, we feel that the private ballot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they may otherwise not choose."

What's good enough for Mexican workers should be good enough for U.S. workers—unless, of course, beefing up organized labor is your only goal. Now, there's an issue for you.

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