House Republicans are fighting to secure secret ballots in union certification votes to prevent intimidation tactics.
“The secret ballot affords everyone the freedom to vote their conscience in privacy without fear of retribution or coercion,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn). “We owe it to every hardworking American to ensure this fundamental right.”
Roe introduced the Secret Ballot Protection Act to the House Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Subcommittee on Wednesday.
Unionization voting procedures have been similar to those of political elections for decades. However, Democrats and their union allies have pushed for “card check” legislation that would replace secret ballots with public votes.
Roe fears doing away with the ballot process will make it easier for union organizers to intimidate workers.
“We can all imagine the chilling effect this has,” he said.
Witness testimony attested to the immense pressure workers already face when going into the booth.
Marlene Felter, a medical records coder at Chapman Medical Center in Orange, Calif., recounted her experience in the “middle of a stealthy and vicious union card check organizing campaign.”
The politically powerful Service Employees International Union failed to unionize Felter’s workplace in 2004 but later negotiated a card check agreement in secret with Chapman. The company handed over employee personal information.
“No employees were asked if they wanted their private information turned over to SEIU, no employees were asked if a secret ballot election would be waived,” Felter said. “From July to November 2011, my co-workers reported that SEIU operatives were calling them on their cell phones, coming to their homes … stalking them … harassing them … and even offering to buy them meals.”
Those lunch dates stood at the center of union card collection. Felter led a counter-campaign, collecting dozens of signatures on petitions. The union and company hired an arbitrator to decide the matter.
“[The arbitrator] conducted a non-public ‘card count’ in November 2011,” she said. “The private arbitrator disallowed and refused to count many of the anti-SEIU cards and petitions I had collected.”
SEIU won by one vote. The victory was short-lived: The Democrat-controlled National Labor Relations Board voted unanimously in May of 2012 that the card check was “erroneous, if not totally fraudulent,” Felter’s written testimony states.
Unions are still losing dues-paying union members despite winning more than 70 percent of the certification votes. Many states have passed right-to-work laws and industries in union strongholds have receded due to globalization and high labor costs, among other factors.
Union membership fell from 20.1 percent of wage and salaried workers in 1983 to 11.3 percent in 2012, according to written testimony by the Society of Human Resource Managers.
Democrats assailed the legislation and defended their union allies.
“The Secret Ballot Protection Act is an extreme act … to discourage employees and employers from” working together, said ranking subcommittee Democrat John Tierney said. “Laws already exist to prohibit that kind of behavior.”
Unions spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the past three election cycles, with most of that money going to Democrats. Tierney received nearly $300,000 from labor groups in the 2012 election cycle.
The Obama administration has done its share to ease unionization. One of his first executive orders forced government contractors to post signs informing employees of their right to unionize while removing Bush-era postings about an employee’s right to opt out of a union.
Additionally, Obama’s appointees on the NLRB later attempted to force nearly all employers to post the signs. A federal court later found that the NLRB posting violated an employer’s free speech rights.
The House has taken special aim in recent weeks at curbing the board. Multiple federal courts have declared the board unconstitutional after President Barack Obama used his recess power to appoint board members Sharon Block and Richard Griffin while the Senate was still in session. The board ignored the rulings.
The House passed legislation in April to halt NLRB activity until the Senate properly confirms a board. Obama vowed to veto the legislation, though it is unlikely to pass the Senate.
The subcommittee discussed another measure to reverse an NLRB ruling that overturned decades of precedent by allowing unions to organize small slivers of employees. The NLRB standard led to a group of Neiman Marcus shoe retailers unionizing without the vote of other store employees.
Burger King franchise owner Eric Oppenheim, who employs 538 people in Maryland, said that if his industry was forced to unionize micro-units it would hinder flexibility and employee advancement because workers could not cross-train in other responsibilities. He said that unions would establish territorial rules that prevent cashiers and line cooks from taking on other duties to meet the needs of customers during a lunch rush.
“It would be endlessly maddening,” he said. “Employees want to take on new duties and progress professionally, but micro-bargaining units may restrict their ability to perform other job functions and impose unnecessary barriers.”
The NLRB has faced a growing chorus of critics from the business, labor, and legal communities, as well as Republicans. The Supreme Court decided this week to hear the legal challenge to the recess appointments, which threatens to overturn more than 1,000 decisions it has issued since January 2012.