Right to secret ballot is part of our right to vote - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Right to secret ballot is part of our right to vote

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East Valley resident Tom Patterson (pattersontomc@cox.net) is a retired physician and former state senator.

Posted: Saturday, October 2, 2010 6:00 am | Updated: 1:00 pm, Tue Oct 5, 2010.

This November, Arizona voters will have the opportunity, by passing Prop. 113, to affirm the right of workers to have a secret ballot when deciding matters of union representation.

Why are we even debating this? The right to privacy when voting is fundamental to our heritage as a free people. We no longer argue over the poll tax or whether voters should be harassed at polling places, so why this? Over 80 percent of Americans believe in the right to a secret ballot.

Moreover, the history of union elections is often confrontational and even violent. Third world countries are criticized if they don’t provide secret ballots, so why would any reasonable person object to granting that same right to Americans?

For union leaders, the problem is that elections conducted with secret ballots don’t produce the desired results. Union membership, except for government workers, has been declining sharply for over 50 years. That’s not all bad for workers. In today’s Information Age, workers have more individual value and are less vulnerable to exploitation than when manual labor was the norm.

Unionization can ruin a company’s chances to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace. The prospect of rigid work rules and strict seniority-based pay scales drives employers to create working conditions good enough to repel the union threat. As a result, union certification elections are successful less than 20 percent of the time.

It’s no wonder that union bosses have made changing the election rules their number one priority. They poured hundreds of millions of dollars into key 2008 national campaigns and hit the jackpot. Now they’re calling in their markers, demanding that “card check” replace secret ballots. Under the card check system, unions are certified if their officials can collect the signatures of a majority of the workers. The inconvenient actual election is skipped.

The arguments for eliminating secret ballot elections have a weird, Orwellian double-speak quality. The federal bill taking away the right to a free election is dubbed the Employee Free Choice Act. Speaking on its behalf, then-Sen. Barack Obama claimed in 2007 the “need to help working Americans organize under a fair and free process.” He complained that employers are “not bound by law to accept the signed decision of a majority of workers. That choice should be made by workers and workers alone.” He left unexplained to this day how eliminating their secret ballot leaves that “choice” up to workers.

Some pols, like Rep. George Miller of California, implausibly claim that card check is necessary for a “sustainable recovery from the economic crisis.” Others argue that employers sometimes engage in unfair practices and even force employees to reveal how they’re going to vote. But a secret ballot protects workers from hectoring bosses just as well as from union thugs.

Our courts have repeatedly supported the right for workers to access a secret ballot. “A secret ballot election is the most satisfactory — indeed the preferred — method of ascertaining whether a union has majority support” the Supreme Court opined in 1969. In 1983, the 7th Circuit Court was even more to the point, noting that “workers sometimes sign union authorization cards not because they intend to vote for the union in the election but to avoid offending the person who asks them to sign …”

Former presidential candidate George McGovern had the intellectual honesty to warn fellow Democrats that “We cannot be a party that strips working Americans of the right to a secret ballot election. [That] would be a betrayal of what we have always championed.”

But here’s the topper: McGovern’s Democratic colleagues already said that themselves. In 2001, 11 lawmakers, all of whom later voted for card check, wrote a letter to the Mexican government demanding the “use of secret ballots in all union recognition elections” since “we feel that the secret ballot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure that workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose.”

That’s well said, but this isn’t rocket science. The right to a secret ballot is part and parcel of the right to vote and thus to self-determination. Prop. 113 would assure Arizona’s workers of that basic right.

East Valley resident Tom Patterson (pattersontomc@cox.net) is a retired physician and former state senator.

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