Why Workers Deserve the Employee Rights Act, Part 1: Secret Ballot Elections

In November, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Price (R-Ga.) introduced the Employee Rights Act (ERA), a bill that strengthens federal labor law to protect workers from union coercion and enhance worker choice when deciding on whether or not to join a union.

A crucial element of the ERA is workers are guaranteed the right to a secret-ballot during union representation elections. As I wrote in an issue of Labor Watch with Vincent Vernuccio, Director of Labor Policy at the Mackinac Center, currently, under the National Labor Relations Act, a union can organize workers in two ways:

by winning a secret ballot election or by the procedure known as “card-check.” To petition for a secret ballot election a union must turn over to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cards that authorize union representation by at least 30 percent of the employees at a worksite. However, if the union collects signed cards from a majority of these employees, then the union can ask the employer to bypass the election and simply recognize it as the employees’ representative.

In other words, if 50 percent plus one of the workers sign the card, then 100 percent of the workers lose their right to a secret ballot election. Card check invariably leads to worker harassment and intimidation because union organizers pressure and even deceive workers into signing the cards. Without an election, workers are deprived of time and privacy to reflect on whether they really want to authorize union representation.

Unions want card check because they know that in most cases workers may act impulsively and quickly sign the card because everyone else is signing. Workers may be reluctant to sign but will yield under the harsh gaze and threatening voice of a union organizer. When a majority of the employees are talked into signing the cards the unions will use that fact to pressure the employer to accept unionization without asking for a secret ballot election.

Under current labor law, when a union obtains signed cards from a majority of employees, the employer still gets to decide whether to recognize the union or whether to request a secret ballot election.

Ensuring workers a secret-ballot election is a much needed reform, especially since card-check, or what the NLRB website calls the “alternative path to union representation,” is a coercive process that frequently subjects workers to threats, intimidation and deception from union organizers, while sidestepping a federally supervised secret-ballot election.

For instance, Marlene Felter, a hospital worker in California, would have greatly benefited from the right to a secret-ballot election. Ms. Felter recently testified before a U.S. House subcommittee about her experience dealing with the Service Employee International union’s coercive card-check organizing campaign.

A National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation news release provides a brief summary of Felter’s story:

Felter and her coworkers were a target of an SEIU card check unionization scheme after SEIU Healthcare Workers West and Chapman Medical Center officials entered into a backroom deal known as a “neutrality agreement” designed to grease the skids for workers to be forced into union ranks. In the agreement, management granted union operatives access to company facilities and waived the right to have a federally-supervised secret ballot election to determine whether workers wished to be unionized.

In addition, eliminating card-check elections would spare numerous employers from union corporate campaigns, a type of union organizing strategy that uses an arsenal of legal, political, and public relations attacks to wear down a company’s resistance to unionization.

In a successful corporate campaign, the union obtains a neutrality agreement from the employer, which almost always includes a card-check provision. Under such an agreement, the employer and union deny employees the right to a NLRB supervised secret-ballot election.

On top of the fact that, secret-ballot elections protect workers from coercive union tactics, and Americans overwhelmingly support the right to a private vote in union elections.

An EmployeeRightsAct.com poll finds that 82 percent of non-union households were strongly/somewhat supportive of requiring secret-ballot elections when employees decide whether or not to join a union and 85 percent of union households were strongly/somewhat supportive.

Next time: Union Recertification