CRDaily

Employee Free Choice Act

Thursday, I was on the fringes of the budget cuts protest and was handed a flier by someone who looked far too old to be a college student. This flier was not in fact about the budget cuts, but calling for Americans to support the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Employee Free Choice Act is a labor union bill currently being considered by Congress. In this post, I don’t want to discuss the merits of labor unions. I don’t even want to discuss most of the provisions of the bill. I just want to discuss one specific provision: The bill will remove the requirement for a secret ballot in union elections. Instead, it will allow a labor union to be formed when the majority of employees sign cards saying that they want a union.

Now, I cannot for the life of me fathom why any freedom-loving individual committed to the idea of democracy would want to do away with something as elemental to open and transparent democracy as the secret ballot.

Secret ballots exist in free elections all around the world for a reason. It doesn’t matter what anyone has said to you or threatened to do to you, once you step into that voting booth what you select on that ballot is between you and God. They can’t punish you after the fact because they have no way of knowing who you really voted for.

With a petition card, anyone can see if you are voting yes or no, and all this goes out the window. The only people that benefit from making elections less free and open are those who would seek to undermine the integrity of an election. Without the protection of the secret ballot, workers don’t have any protection from coercion by advocates of one side or another. Our unionization process will become like elections in a corrupt third world country.

In short, this bill is a threat to free and open democracy, and I truly hope that the US Senate and President Obama have the wisdom to kill this piece of anti-democratic legislation.

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7 replies »

  1. EFCA doesn’t get rid of the secret ballot. If the employees decide that they want to use it, they can. But the bill gives employees more options for forming a legal bargaining unit. I suggest to whoever wrote this that they actually look at the bill and/or anything that’s not already against it.

    “Secret Ballot” elections to create a legal bargaining unit for unions is not analogous to the secret ballot election we use to elect politicians. Often, employers facing an election discourage employees from showing up that day or are thrown some sort of wrench in their work day like extra work or work that is difficult and isolating; what is also known in the labor world as “harassment by assignment.” They may not find out who voted what, but they know who voted. Employees afraid for their jobs don’t risk it by even showing up for the election.

    The most important part of EFCA isn’t the added option of card check but the increase of fines for employers using intimidation tactics. Right now the fines are laughably minimal and employers consider it the cost of doing business. It makes good financial sense for them to break the law, and they have no problem doing it over and over and over again to prevent a union from forming.

    When I went to help organize at Central Regional Hospital, where employees were being forced to take blood from patients without receiving formal training on how to do it, beaten up by patients without any legal defense, or worked in conditions horrible in many other ways, employees there told me that at job orientation they were told they do not have the right to join a union as state employees. This is incorrect and a violation of all those people’s first amendment right to free expressive association. As employees of the State it’s especially egregious.

    Luckily fans of the CR can be happy to know that the repressive regime of NC does not let its state employees collectively bargain, which is considered a human right everywhere else in the developed world. At this point Mexico has better labor defenses than North Carolina, to the point where a Mexican labor union (Frente Autentico de Trabajadores) filed for a court case to begin within the International Labor Organization on behalf of NC state workers. In 2006 they ruled that NC was violating workers’ rights and it was the obligation of the United States, as a member of the ILO, to repeal the ban on collective bargaining.

    To frame your anti-union statements as an argument for free speech is transparent, classist, kitsch, and worst of all, uninformed. Don’t act like you care about the rights of these people when their rights are violated at work day in and day out and weren’t worth a thing until they challenged the ability of their employers to take advantage of them.

  2. Former member of the National Labor Relations Board Peter Kirsanow explains that while secret ballot elections are technically allowed, they will almost never occur, thus violating the rights of workers to be free from harassment:

    “Under EFCA, however, a union need only obtain signed authorization cards from more than 50 percent of employees in the bargaining unit to be certified by the NLRB. The employer could no longer require an election, though the employees themselves could demand one. For all practical purposes, elections would cease.”

    You claimed, falsely, that EFCA applies to government employees. This is not true. It only applies to workers covered under the National Labor Relations Act. Whether NC employees should be unionized is another debate entirely.

    EFCA supporters want to be able to harass and intimidate workers into voting for unionization. This is pitiful. If workers don’t want to join your union, they shouldn’t have to. They should have the option to vote no (as well as the option to vote yes without being harassed by management).

    Unions are becoming outdated, as government agencies have replaced their functionality. OSHA, Fair Labor Standards Act, Equal Pay Act, etc. Why pay union dues when these government agencies and laws serve the same purpose?

    The guy who introduced EFCA in the House in 2007, George Miller (a Dem from California), called the secret ballot election “absolutely necessary” in a 2001 letter to Mexican officials. Barney Frank, Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders (a socialist) and others co-signed the letter. Now, all support the Employee No Choice Act.

    Just a bunch of politicians looking for more power and campaign contributions. They’re not interested in helping workers.

  3. BW, you say you are concerned with preventing coercion in elections. Well, secret ballots prevent coercion by both sides. Using signed cards can make it easier for both employers and union organizers to employ coercive methods.

  4. Of course Peter Kirsanow is going to reflect your opinion; why bother citing him? Kirsanow believed interment camps for Arab-Americans was considerable in the event of a second terrorist attack. That’d be enough to call into his question his commitment to expanding the franchise of individual rights. As a Bush appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, it’s hard to consider him any sort of untainted opinion on the issues of working people in this country.

    I did not claim, falsely, anything about public sector employees. I used my experience as an organizer to illustrate the sorts of problems workers face on the job in trying to improve their conditions at work. If you want a non-public sector example, look at the 15-year fight against Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, NC where the sheriff deputized the corporate security forces and set up a makeshift jail at the plant to deter unionization.

    Just saying secret ballot prevents intimidation doesn’t mean it does. Again, it is not like walking into a church or school and voting for town council. It’s way more intrusive and easily affected by what employers tell their employees beforehand. Sensible people aren’t going to take the time to consider the legality of what their boss is saying to them, or even if it matters, when their livelihood is on the line.

    You can try and try to put a dualistic spin on this, but that’s just not the reality. Neither is it realistic to think that simply having a law means that it gets enforced, or that individual employees have the resources to bring employers to court to uphold it. Unions also provide pensions and insurance to many employees who don’t get them from their jobs.

  5. No he didn’t. He said that he did *not* support such camps. He did say, however, that it might be difficult for the government to resist an outcry for such campus. But again, he said he did *not* support such camps.

    After losing the vote multiple times, the organizers sued Smithfield, and the two sides agreed to hold a secret ballot election, which the union won by a small margin. Why expose workers to the harassment of management under card check? Why expose them to harassment from union organizers?

  6. Since the public doesn’t create internment camps, his comments suggested that while not a favorable option, internment was something the government could consider in the name of safety. It wasn’t until after he came under fire that he publicly backtracked. As a public figure, and considering his position, he needed not to be so loose-lipped about what he put up for public debate.

    The workers at Smithfield didn’t “lose the vote” “multiple times.” They voted twice and the results were invalidated because the NLRB found Smithfield guilty of unfair election conduct.

    It’s not just enforcement. When it’s enforced, it doesn’t matter. You can go through the court system, but by then people have already lost their jobs and livelihoods. The fines are so negligible management considers it the cost of doing business. EFCA beefs up the penalties for misconduct.

    I feel like I’ve said all of this before. OK, let’s explain this process so I’m not the only one with any clue of what I’m talking about. The way it works now, card check is already part of the process. It actually used to be the preferred method by the NLRB. You have to have 30%, which the NLRB verifies and begins the secret ballot election. If more than 50% sign cards now and the employer has used intimidation tactics, the NLRB has the authority to waive the ballot election. Under perfect circumstances, this would work, but the system is broken; the campaigns are years long and bitter, where one side has unlimited access to its employees, control over their livelihoods, and force the employees to attend anti-union meetings. Businesses even threaten to shut down shops. In 1998-9, 36% of employees who voted no said their choice was due to employer intimidation.

    Under EFCA, if 50% + 1 sign the cards, that’s it, now the company and the bargaining unit have to negotiate a contract. What’s so undemocratic about simple majority? What’s so wrong about working under a contract that protects you from unfair work practices and can provide you the legal and financial resources required to uphold the law?

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