The United States is in the forefront of efforts to spread democracy abroad. Yet one of the most fundamental tenets of democracy is at risk in America today: the secret ballot.
From its very founding the United States has been an example to the world. A republic established among empires, America has long represented the democratic ideal. Fundamental to democracy is the use of secret ballots. For people to freely vote their conscience, they must know that their vote will remain private. They must know that they will not be subject to retaliation because of the choices they make at the ballot box. This is democracy 101. It has long set America and other democracies apart from autocracies and dictatorships. After all, the Soviet Union held elections. But it did not matter how people voted, and anyone foolish enough to vote freely would have been found out.
Yet presently we are debating whether to keep secret ballots in America.
True, no one has suggested dropping secret ballots for congressional elections. Imagine the campaign slogan: “I know how you voted!” But politicians who would never suggest that they should be elected without a secret ballot propose stripping workers of the right to vote in private on whether they want to be represented by a union.
Consider the new Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis. In 2006, then-Representative Solis and several colleagues disputed the election of the new chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Representative Solis complained that he had not been chosen by secret ballot: “It is important that the integrity of the [Caucus] be unquestioned and above reproach,” she wrote. Yet as a Member of Congress, she joined most of her Democratic colleagues in supporting the misnamed “Employee Free Choice Act,” which was introduced this week and would replace secret ballot elections with public card-signing. As a nation, we must be just as concerned about union integrity and keeping the organizing process above reproach as we are with how elections for public office are conducted.
Currently, federal law requires the National Labor Relations Board to supervise an employee election if 30 percent of workers sign a union card. However, labor organizers know that they are likely to lose if they can’t get more people to sign. In practice, they still lose half of the elections even when they get signatures of up 75 percent of workers. Thus, organized labor wants to change the law so that if 50 percent plus one worker signs a union card, the union will be automatically recognized. This undemocratic process is called “Card Check.”
Employee elections are important for two reasons. First, Card Check does not offer a fair, objective process for workers to decide on unionization. To the contrary, Card Check encourages unions to mislead employees. Labor organizers often tell workers that signing a card is merely a request for more information or serves some other innocuous purpose. Card Check is also an open invitation to union intimidation. It is like having to show a local Soviet political commissar your ballot before putting it in the box.
Unfortunately, examples of unions abusing employees are legion and well-documented. For example, Karen Mayhew, who works for Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon, found herself targeted by the Service Employees International Union.”Throughout this whole ordeal, my colleagues and I were subjected to badgering and immense peer pressure.
Some of us even received phone calls at home,” she explained. In some cases, groups of union activists actually descend upon the homes of workers. As a result, a decision to sign a card is rarely an act of free choice-that is why unions lose so many elections even after gaining a majority of signatures.
Second, election campaigns change people’s minds. Union officials don’t like it, but good employers have a positive story to tell their employees, and an organizing election gives companies a chance to tell it.
We hold elections for government positions for the same reason. We could adopt a variant of card check: if 50 percent plus one person signed a candidate’s card, they would be automatically seated. It would save a lot of time and money-just think, the 2012 presidential election could be decided today!
Political campaigns, however flawed, serve a purpose. They allow us to see candidates in action, question them about their plans, and watch them debate the issues. We almost certainly make a better decision at the end of a campaign than we would have at the start. So, too, is it when workers decide whether a particular union should represent them.
Employees have a right to join a union, and that right should be zealously protected. But they also have a right not to join a union, and that right also should be zealously protected. How do we determine what workers want? It’s simple: Let them vote. Congress should reject this attempt by organized labor to gut the bedrock principle of democracy.
Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice. Also, Bernard is author of Women’s Progress: How Women and Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before and is an MSNBC political analyst and a Sunday columnist with The Examiner.