Newest Initiative Genre: Preserving 'Secret Ballot' Elections For Union Organizing
Ballot initiatives sometimes are not just measures. They're cottage industries, with sponsors filing the same or similar initiatives all over the country. Think of term limits, or eminent domain protection, or the Humane Society's many animal protection measures.
Now there's a new genre coming: the preservation of "secret ballot" union elections. The context: Unions have long complained -- with good reason -- that the current system for organizing workers gives corporations too much power. That process is built around secret ballot elections, but the process has such loose time limits and allows for endless legal appeals -- and the intimidation and firing of workers in the meantime -- that unions have soured on the secret ballot. In its place, labor wants federal legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act. Backed by Democrats, including President-elect Obama, EFCA would allow unions attempting to organize a workplace to win formal recognition without a secret ballot vote. They would have to gather signed cards from a majority of people in the workplace -- a process generally known as card check. Some employers currently choose to recognize unions who gather cards, but most insist on the secret ballot election. It's their choice. EFCA would flip that, giving the unions the choice -- cards or secret ballot -- in how they organize a workplace.
With Democrats about to take control of Washington, business groups -- which broadly opposes EFCA and card check -- are going to the states. And specifically, they're going to the people. A business coalition, Save Our Secret Ballot, is announcing today its intentions to sponsor ballot initiatives in Arizona, Arkansas and Missouri. They'll pursue legislative referenda in Nevada and Utah. Politically, it's a decent strategy. The business groups are likely to win in places like Utah and Arkansas. But they'll have their hands full in the other states, especially Nevada, which would emerge as the top state front in this war. Las Vegas is a union town, dominated by the powerful local of Unite HERE, the hotel and culinary workers' union. Unite HERE's leaders have been among the strongest advocates of card check. A ballot campaign in Nevada over the issue would likely become the most expensive campaign in the history of that state.
If Save Our Secret Ballots proves successful and the EFCA passes, the big questions may prove to be legal. Does federal law, which tends to govern labor relations matters, permit card check in states that prohibit it? Or will states be able to carve out exceptions to the rule?