Big Labor’s Bill to End Secret Ballots Gains Momentum

By Fred Lucas | November 6, 2008 | 7:09 PM EST

ALF-CIO President John Sweeney, leader of a coalition of labor unions which are pushing for the adoption of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would eliminate secret ballots for union elections. (AP Photo)

( - In April, then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said in Philadelphia, “I’ve fought to pass the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate. And I will make it the law of the land when I’m president of the United States of America.”
President-elect Obama will move into the White House with increased Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, which also support legislation designed to stem the tide of declining union membership.
The bill replaces the secret ballot by allowing union organizers to publicly ask workers to sign a card in favor of unionizing. If a bare majority of employees approve, then an employer would have to recognize the union.
Supporters say that “card check” organizing simply makes it easier for the employee to organize, but opponents of the legislation – including former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern – warn  that the legislation would do away with the secret ballot.
However, a pro-union advocacy group believes public opinion is on the union’s side. The group, American Rights at Work, released a poll Thursday to remind the public about the president-elect’s support of the proposal.
The poll, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associations, showed that 60 percent support the legislation, and 31 percent believe it should be a top priority for Congress. 
That came despite a $20 million advertising campaign against the proposal that aired in nine battleground states, said David Bonior, chairman of American Rights at Work and a former liberal Democratic congressman from Michigan.
“We have only seen the beginning of the fight to restore workers’ rights in this country as we can expect more sound and fury from opponents of this bill,” Bonior said in a statement.
“But voters have clearly spoken. In our current economic climate, the American public is hungry for measures to strengthen the middle class and our new Congress should heed this call and make it a priority,” he said.
Republicans in Congress do not believe the bill is unstoppable, said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“The right to a secret ballot should be important to Republicans and Democrats,” Steel told “There are a lot of Democrats elected from traditionally conservative districts. They will either have to defend the right to the secret ballot or be expected to explain themselves to their constituents.”
Card check passed the Democratic House last year but died in a Republican-led filibuster. As long as Republicans have 40 votes in the Senate, they can stop the bill, said Mark McKinnon, spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute, which opposes card check.
“It is an Orwellian term,” McKinnon told “It is not the Employee Free Choice Act – it is the forced choice act. There is no problem with the private ballot. If you eliminate that, it opens it up to coercion.”
This would be no way for Obama to govern in a post-partisan fashion, McKinnon said. He added that if Obama supported the proposal right away, it would cause uproar from small business owners across the country.
“It could be what gays in the military was for Clinton,” McKinnon said, describing a turbulent policy in Bill Clinton’s first year in office. “This could be a great opportunity for President-elect Obama to stand up against an issue that is bad for the country and would be bad for Obama.”
Also, under the proposal, if parties can’t settle a dispute within 120 days, the dispute goes to an arbitration panel that can impose a contract that is binding for two years. Opponents of the bill say that would take away any incentive for either side to negotiate.
Organized labor contributed about $400 million this year to congressional candidates who support the bill, according to the Workforce Fairness Institute. Under current law, more than 55 percent of secret ballot elections go in favor of unions, but under the proposal, unions anticipate that rising to 80 percent, the institute says.
The problem with elections is that management controls the process and can intimidate or fire people that initiate the process, according to the AFL-CIO, a labor advocacy group that lists the EFCA on its Web site as a top priority.
Further, a workplace could still hold an election, while the EFCA would just provide a second option for union organizers, according to the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO says majority card check is nothing new, and “responsible” companies such as Cingular have allowed it voluntarily.
However, a Heritage Foundation study cited evidence of coercion at workplaces where card check was used. During a card check campaign at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, union organizers said that workers who did not sign union cards would lose their jobs, according to the study.
In another case, a United Steel Workers of America official threatened to report migrant workers to federal officials if they did not sign the cards.