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AFL-CIO blogger Tula Connell  is substituting this week for Jordan Barab.

Voting by secret ballot sounds like the American way.

At least it did before paperless electronic voting machines. But there’s another secret ballot election process that definitely is not democratic: The one that takes place when you’re trying to form a union.

Right now, if you and your co-workers want to join a union, you must go through the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which includes an “election” complete with secret ballots—unless your employer is one of the rare companies that won’t force you to do so.

Because NLRB “elections” are anything but democratic.

The NLRB process takes so long, is so tilted in favor of employers and has such weak remedies, it actually encourages managers to harass, intimidate and even fire employees.
It’s illegal, but 25 percent of private-sector employers fire workers who try to form a union. And many more threaten workers with closings, layoffs and outsourcing.

And even though some of these employer actions are against the law, workers who try to get their jobs back or stop the harassment face months or years of litigation to battle their employers. The NLRB, which is supposed to enforce labor law, but its lengthy, bureaucratic process is no help. This antiquated and broken NLRB system matters a lot—while the NLRB sounds like just another bureaucratic government agency, it’s holding down working families' living standards and weakening our country. [Union workers earn 29 percent more than nonunion workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their median weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary work were $801 in 2005, compared with $622 for their nonunion counterparts. The union difference really does make a difference…more details here .]

“As long as there is no law to protect us better, I don’t think it is likely that I will organize again,” Mario Ramirez said, after the Manhattan sewing shop where he worked closed down in the wake of a 1997 union organizing drive.

Ramirez was among workers profiled in a Human Rights Watch report. Human Rights Watch, an international organization that conducts systematic investigations of human rights abuses in 70 countries, turned its attention to the United States in 2000 and concluded that “freedom of association is a right under severe, often buckling pressure when workers in the United States try to exercise it.”

In the early days of the NLRB, created in the 1930s, workers got union representation in the workplace by signing cards indicating their desire to be represented by a union—what we call a majority verification process (sometimes called “card-check”). Many unions are returning to that original process—and are achieving great success. Unions like the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

In a little more than a year, some 22,000 former AT&T employees who now work for Cingular Wireless have signed up to join CWA. Many live in right to work for less states such as Virginia, Mississippi and Texas. Overall, some 90 percent of Cingular’s employees, or nearly 40,000 workers, have CWA representation. And they did it without the employer harassment or worker fear of being fired that too often happens when workers choose to join a union.

When the new Congress convenes in January, we in the union movement will be working with lawmakers like Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller to re-introduce the Employee Free Choice Act. One of the Employee Free Choice Act’s main goals would be to allow workers to freely choose whether to be represented by a union by signing cards authorizing union representation—majority verification. The Employee Free Choice Act also would:

  • Provide mediation and arbitration for first-contract disputes.
  • Establish stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union and during first-contract negotiations.

Even in the 109th Congress, the Employee Free Choice Act garnered 216 co-sponsors, two short of the total needed for passage. In the Senate, 43 lawmakers signed on. (See a list of co-sponsors here .)

Now, with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, Big Business and its anti-worker representatives like the U.S. Chamber of Congress and the National Association of Manufacturers will be launching an all-out campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act. They will say—as they’ve said in the past—that unions are “undemocratic” because we don’t support the NLRB election process.

That accusation is a lie.

One of the most vitriolic of the anti-worker, anti-union propagandists is Richard Berman , whose long history of PR sleaze campaigns now includes the misleadingly named group, Union Facts, that acts as a front to do the dirty work for organizations like the Chamber. Berman’s past list of hatchet jobs includes a PR campaign to slam Mothers Against Drunk Driving on behalf of the alcohol industry and another literally toxic campaign for the tuna industry that Village Voice described as encouraging pregnant women to eat tuna—never mind the mercury.

Another claim by Berman and others—like neocon Mickey Kaus —who oppose workers’ freedom to form unions is that the NLRB process is “more fair” because union organizers “coerce” workers in the card-check process.

Not so, according to the vast majority of workers surveyed in a poll by the employee advocacy group American Rights at Work. Rutgers University and Wheeling Jesuit University professors Adrienne Eaton, Ph.D., and Jill Kriesky, Ph.D., respectively, conducted a national telephone survey of 430 randomly selected workers from worksites where employees sought to become represented by unions using NLRB elections or card-check campaigns in 2002.

Among the survey’s findings:

  • Workers in NLRB elections were twice as likely (46 percent compared with 23 percent) as those in card-check campaigns to report that management coerced them to oppose the union.
  • Fewer workers in card-check campaigns than in elections felt pressure from co-workers to support the union (17 percent compared with 22 percent).

American Rights at Work Executive Director Mary Beth Maxwell sums it up succinctly:

Looking at the survey results, one can only conclude that card-check opponents are trying to solve the wrong problem. If protecting workers’ free choice is really the goal, then you’ve got to start by ending management coercion.

We will be getting out the message that Employee Free Choice means just that.

Photo credit: David Bacon