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Secret Ballot Hypocrisy

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When three of the top policymakers in Washington voice explicit support for a particular viewpoint, it merits notice.

When that viewpoint is unambiguous support of the sanctity of the secret ballot, it makes news. Particularly this year, when conventional wisdom holds that congressional Democrats are poised to eliminate the secret ballot in unionizing elections, a trio of influential voices advocating for secret ballots ought to make a real splash.

Consider, then, these powerful quotes.

“It’s a secret ballot. Thank the Lord.”

“[T]he increased use of the secret ballot in union recognition elections will help bring real democracy to the … workplace.”

“[W]e need to follow proper rules of procedure and hold a vote by secret ballot. It is important that the integrity … be unquestioned and above reproach.”

Thanking a higher power for privacy at the ballot box? That was New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, the Democratic Chair of the powerful U.S. House Committee on Rules. The panel she chairs has the authority to determine whether or not a bill or a particular amendment will receive a vote on the House floor.

Her quote was not speaking to the importance of secret ballots for working men and women, however; it was simply her appreciation for her own privacy in a hotly contested Democratic leadership election, in which congressional Democrats ousted their longest serving member from his post atop the Energy and Commerce Committee.

No wonder she valued her privacy.

And who extolled the virtues of secret ballot unionizing elections as bringing real democracy to the workplace? That was none other than my good friend and fellow Californian Rep. George Miller, the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, which sets federal policy for American workplaces.

A word was omitted from Rep. Miller’s quote as printed above; in fairness, the complete statement should be presented. It says that increased use of the secret ballot in union recognition elections will help bring real democracy to the Mexican workplace, and it comes from a letter written in 2001 by Rep. Miller and 15 fellow congressional Democrats to Mexican government officials in support of secret ballots to resolve unionizing drives in their workplaces.

The final quote too is missing words that explain its surprising origin. In unabridged form, it says that “it is important that the integrity of the [Congressional Hispanic Caucus] be unquestioned and above reproach.” It comes from a letter in which four Democratic congressional representatives call for a secret ballot election of the leadership of a party caucus, and one of those signing the letter is Rep. Hilda Solis, the distinguished California congresswoman who today is being considered in the Senate for her nomination to be President-elect Barack Obama’s Secretary of Labor.

While each of these three has offered compelling support for the use of secret ballots, they have also advocated for the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would abolish secret ballot elections for American workers deciding whether they wish to be represented by a particular labor union.

This measure is often referred to as the “card check” proposal, because it replaces the secret ballot with an open sign-up process in which workers are forced to publicly declare their support for a union by signing a card.

Put another way, card check may bring forced unionization through peer pressure, or worse, coercion and outright intimidation.

This anti-worker proposal is hugely unpopular with the public – nearly 80 percent of the American people opposed the bill when it was last brought to a vote in the House – but it’s sacred to organized labor and their allies in the Democratic Congress.

The three top Democrats voicing support for secret ballots outside the American workplace are leaders in their party, and I respect each of them deeply. But their advocacy for basic democratic rights should not stop on the doorstep of America’s workplaces.

I hope they take their own words to heart, and back away from the dangerous and undemocratic card check proposal. To do otherwise would betray the very principles of freedom and democracy that they so eloquently and vociferously defended.

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