Barbara Young

When I enter the voting booth and close the curtain, I know that I have stepped into a sphere of freedom in its purest sense — a place where independence is not merely a right but a duty. My thoughts are my own as are my beliefs. I don’t have to share them, justify them or even explain them. When I come out of that booth, I can even lie about my thoughts and actions — who needs to know, nay who has a right to know. Lying in this instance is a mighty weapon against intimidation and tyranny.

That is the awesome power of the secret ballot, whether to elect a political candidate or to vote for or against union representation in the workplace. Collective bargaining is my thesis this month.

A history lesson is in order to lay the groundwork. Organizing and collective bargain campaigns between workers and employers became law with the enactment of The Wagner Act of 1935 (aka the National Labor Relations Act) overturning decades of unfavorable court-decision assertions that labor unions “violated an employee’s liberty of contract.” Without a doubt, this law was a pivotal point in U.S. labor history. The law was amended in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act (aka Labor Management Relations Act) designed to provide police power to demand that unions “deal fairly with management.” The final piece in the scenario came in 1959 with the Landrum-Griffin Act, which further modified the Wagner Act to clamp down on union officials who abused their power in handling union funds and internal affairs.

The history of unions in the meat packing industry parallels that of other industrial unions — hard times early on in the struggle to organize a reluctant industry, relative peace in the immediate post World War II era and a new direction that limited union power in the 1980s and 1990s, as the negotiating pendulum swung back favoring the industry.

Through it all, thanks to the wisdom of the NLRA, workers voted their preference for or against unionization in secrecy. Now comes yet another proposed amendment that, as I understand it, would essentially wipe out the long established acceptance of secret balloting. At issue is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

Since its reintroduction in the House of Representatives in February of 2007, EFCA (aka card check law) has been a boiling pot of controversy. Some see an ongoing anti-EFCA push as a move to break the union. Meanwhile, EFCA backers, including President Obama, argue that it will ensure decent pay and benefits for workers. Union officials claim that increased union membership would result in more money for working-class families to spend which, in turn, would spur economic growth and job creation. I don’t get the logic of this since these economic times are defined in part by high unemployment — job losses far exceeding job creations. Americans — consumers and employers — are cutting back and spending less.

I recently visited friends who find themselves in a fix because the husband, who retired from Chrysler with an enviable pension and healthcare package, received notice shortly before my visit informing him of drastic cuts that the couple does not know how they will make up. This is a story that grows exponentially in today’s economic climate. My point is that today unions in some cases are doing what they were not born to do — take back workers’ hard won benefits in hopes of saving jobs not just benefits.

EFCA would amend the NLRA “to establish an efficient system to enable employees to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to provide for mandatory injunctions for unfair labor practices during organizing efforts, and for other purposes.”

Traditionally, the union certification process required secret-ballot elections — that changes under EFCA whereby 50 percent of a company’s employees would need to sign a card requesting that the employer recognize union representation.

There is nothing wrong with the current system requiring labor unions to win elections by a majority vote of the workforce — the minimum approval by 50 percent of the employees who vote in secret. A union win empowers it to represent all employees in the bargaining unit. The losing side has the right to contest the election before the NLRB.

I have been a card-carrying union member twice in my professional career without ever casting one vote. I hired into an existing collective bargaining unit. This is not about bashing unions. I urge our political representatives to refrain from fixing what is not broken. Among other things, there is an intimidation factor built into EFCA. Anonymity protects workers from management and union intimidation.

Secrecy is good.