Chiseling away at democracy

Posted: Feb 26, 2007 3:45 PM
Chiseling away at democracy

The right to a secret ballot is the cornerstone of our democracy. For centuries, Americans – regardless of their race, creed, or gender – have fought for the right to vote…and the right to keep that vote to themselves. Now, just months after the new Democrat majority was elected in 435 separate, private ballot elections, it is preparing to strip men and women of their right to a private ballot in the workplace. What could be more undemocratic than that?

This week, House Democrat leaders will bring up for debate legislation – the cleverly-entitled Employee Free Choice Act – that would kill private voting rights in union organizing elections and make employees’ votes public through what’s known as a “card check.” In card check campaigns, union bosses gather authorization cards purportedly signed by workers expressing their desire for a union to represent them – a process that notoriously leaves workers open to coercion, pressure, and outright intimidation.

Such an instance of intimidation was highlighted in testimony provided earlier this month to a U.S. House labor subcommittee by Karen M. (to protect her identity, she chose not to provide her full last name), an employee who described tactics used in a card check campaign at her company in Oregon. During that card check drive, she told us that she and her colleagues were “subjected to badgering and immense peer pressure” and that she “exercised [her] free choice not to be in the union and [her] work life became miserable because of it.” Frankly, hers is one of the tamer stories we’ve heard.

What’s particularly amazing, however, is that even sponsors of the card check bill admit the process is inherently prone to just the type of intimidation Karen described in her testimony. Writing to Mexican – yes, Mexican – officials in August 2001 in advance of an election between two competing labor unions in that country, 16 House Democrats – 11 of whom remain in the House and sponsor the card check bill – plainly stated, “We feel that the secret ballot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they may otherwise not choose.”

That’s right. Not only do card check supporters seem to be supporting rights for Mexican workers that they aren’t even willing to protect for their own constituents, but they also have admitted that the same card check process they romanticize as a better alternative to the secret ballot is, in fact, flawed.

So, let’s be clear. No matter where they’re conducted – the United States, Mexico, or anywhere else – and regardless of the circumstances – whether between two unions or in a single union recognition campaign – the fact remains that, in the best case, card check campaigns expose a worker’s private vote for everyone to see…and, in the worst case, they leave workers wide open to intimidation, coercion, and threats.

So, if it’s not to protect workers, what is the real reason for the card check bill? Two words: desperation and power. Union membership is in sharp decline – down to 12 percent nationwide and seven percent in the private sector. And that trend isn’t showing any signs of reversing.

That is, unless something dramatic occurs.

And that’s where the so-called Employee Free Choice Act comes into play. It gives Big Labor and the Democrats they helped elect one last, best shot at reversing their flagging fortunes. Will it work? Probably not this time around. The bill is likely to stall in the Senate, and President Bush already has pledged a veto should it get that far. But is it a wake-up call for all of us? Absolutely. House Democrats this week are poised to begin chiseling away at democracy in the workplace, and if they’re willing to do something so brash this early in the new Congress, you can’t help but ask, “what’s next?”