Recently, I overheard a conversation between two ostensibly pro-union people discussing the Employee Free Choice Act. One of them kept insisting that the problem with the Free Choice Act was that it would abolish secret ballots. “You can’t get rid of secret ballots!” He argued. “It’s un-American!”
We’re taught – rightly so – from a very early age that the secret ballot is a cornerstone of Democracy. Dictatorships, if they have elections at all, don’t have secret ballots; we do. So I understood this man’s immediate reaction. Unfortunately, so do a number of powerful anti-union interests.
First of all, let me just say right up front that, no, the EFCA would not, in fact, abolish secret ballots. What it would do is abolish employer-mandated elections; if the employees voting on the union choose to have a secret ballot election in addition to the card check, they would certainly be free to do so. If you’ve decided that you want your workplace to be unionized, with the card check process, the NLRB would certify your union once a majority of employees decide that they want to unionize and then sign a card, making it much easier for workers who want to unionize to do so.
One of the leaders in the card check opposition movement is the Center for Union Facts (a misnomer if there ever was one, as the Center has been caught numerous times in outright lies). Led by Rick Berman, a lobbyist for companies in such well-liked and trusted fields as tobacco, fast food, and alcohol, the Center is a strong supporter of the Secret Ballot Protection Act, which is every bit as sincere about protecting secret ballots as the Patriot Act is about, well, patriotism.
You might recognize the Center for Union Facts if you read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, since it has taken out very expensive full-page ads in all three papers. You might also recognize them from TV, since they’ve also shelled out a considerable amount of money to place ads featuring “disgruntled union members” (really actors) on network television, although a number of stations have refused to air them, citing them as being blatantly inaccurate. If you’ve ever been on a website that discusses labor issues and uses Google ads, you’ve probably seen their banners beseeching you to stop those greedy unions from taking away your right to a secret ballot.
The Center claims that it does not oppose unions, only corrupt union bosses. On its website, it says that it is a non-profit organization supported by “foundations, businesses, union members, and the general public” and says again and again that really, its whole purpose is simply to help union members fight against union officials.
However, there are no foundations or individuals who have said that they support the Center. In the past, Berman has had ties to a number of powerful corporations such as Coca-Cola and Phillip Morris, in addition to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but he refuses to release a list of donors to the Center.
Good rule of thumb: if you can’t find out who is bankrolling a nonprofit group, chances are very good that it is not a trustworthy organization.
Groups like the Center for Union Facts and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have perfectly good reasons for opposing labor unions: the weaker the American labor movement is, the easier it becomes for the already wealthy and powerful to exploit their workers and become even more so. But of course nobody would get much support for such an agenda if they were to come out and admit it.
Of course they’re going to spend massive amounts of money and time vilifying unions (or “union bosses”) and trying to convince workers that we’d really be better off on our own. They have absolutely everything to gain by making us think that it is labor unions, and not corporate interests, that lie behind our falling wages, increasing workload and plummeting standard of living. And they’re certainly not about to let a little thing like the truth get in their way.
Sarah Wolf is on the staff of the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service and a proud member of AFSCME Local 3800, the university clerical union.