Unions know all about voter suppression

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At a time when politics has produced several near government shutdowns and put the United States on the brink of its first default, still more shocking is the move by many Republican state legislatures to disenfranchise groups of traditionally Democratic voters by passing voter ID laws.

These laws, passed in eight states, including Pennsylvania, and being pushed in many others, appeared to come out of nowhere to solve a problem that has not been shown to exist. Thankfully, a judge on Tuesday essentially stayed Pennsylvania's law for this year's elections, but it remains in place.

Statements by architects of the new laws have revealed what's really at play. Most notoriously, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, proudly announced that the voter ID law he helped pass would "allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." Then there was the county GOP chair in Ohio who bluntly explained why the legislature wanted to limit early voting hours only for certain voters, saying the state should "not accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter-turnout machine."

This transparent attempt to manipulate the political system and deny people their civil rights outrages fair-minded people. But there is a parallel form of voter suppression that has received much less attention: the effort to suppress workers' rights to form or join a union. Just as voter ID bills are purely political attempts to disenfranchise potential Democratic voters, union suppression efforts are in large part an attempt to splinter the Democratic coalition.

Union suppression for political gain is not new. Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan has described how Republicans pushed anti-labor reforms in the late 1940s to slow the rapid growth of the Democratic Party. In the 1970s, teacher union leader Albert Shanker pointed out that pro-union labor law reform would change "the entire politics of the Congress of the United States." Journalist John Judis has explained how recent legislation to limit public-sector unions in Wisconsin and other states is the culmination of a 20-year effort by Republicans to lessen the support that public employees can provide to Democratic candidates.

The right to organize at work is fundamental and flows from the First Amendment right of association. Employee rights was one of the central pillars of the civil rights movement, along with political, social and educational equality.

Voting in both union and presidential elections should be free and fair. But just as Republicans have used voter ID laws in an attempt to discourage Democratic constituencies from voting, they have used opposition to the "card check" provision of the Employee Free Choice act to discourage workers from joining or starting unions.

In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain argued against card check, which would allow the creation of a union in a rolling election once a majority of employees signed off, calling the right to a secret ballot in a union election "fundamental to democracy." But, just as holding secret-ballot union elections sounds as reasonable as voter ID -- well, you show your ID to cash a check or board a flight, don't you? -- they also are used by employers to suppress votes.

Voter ID laws place obstacles in the way of eligible voters who don't have the prescribed types of ID cards, and poor and minority voters who predominantly support Democrats tend not to have them. The secret-ballot requirement for union elections has been used in a similar way to keep down unions.

After World War II, unions enjoyed a strong political and social voice in American society, which was used to improve employee wages and benefits and pass progressive legislation such as Medicare. A lot of employers didn't like this and argued that unions were corrupt, infiltrated by communists and needed to be reined in. The charges were grossly overstated and the reaction was disproportionate.

After a great deal of lobbying from the National Association of Manufacturers, Congress passed over President Harry Truman's veto the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The result was to permanently weaken the labor movement by placing significant burdens on employees' right to elect exclusive representatives to bargain for the terms and conditions of their employment.

Employers have used the law to attack organizing efforts aggressively. Some typical tactics are technically legal, but belie any claim to free and fair elections. They include holding captive-audience meetings at which employees are warned against forming or joining a union, issuing not-so-subtle threats of closing or relocating their business if a union is elected and employing anti-labor "consultants" to hamstring elections.

Many employers cross the legal line with relative impunity thanks to weak enforcement of labor laws. They conduct illegal surveillance and fire or discipline workers who support the union in an attempt to scare others. Government action is so minimal and the fines so low that many companies have simply calculated that breaking the law is worth the risk.

The result is that workers must overcome significant obstacles just to be able to vote on whether to form a union. And if they do get to vote, they often do so in fear.

No wonder the percentage of union participation has dropped from about a third of private sector workers in 1950 to less than 7 percent today. Other economic and social forces have contributed to this decline, but polling and comparisons with other Western democracies indicate that fierce employer opposition and weak laws are largely to blame.

In today's workplace in America, it takes real courage for a worker to exercise his or her right to form or join a union. The hurdles and dangers that the typical worker faces from employer intimidation make modern union elections appear more like those in emerging democracies than elections in America.

This state of affairs did not come about all at once. Piece by piece, the right to free and fair union elections eroded, to the point where the process now fails to reflect the true preferences of workers.

Voter ID and other attempts at voter suppression appear dispiritingly similar to the early efforts at labor suppression. Labor history should serve as a warning as to how far voter suppression can go.


Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, an employment discrimination and labor attorney, are coauthors of "Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice."


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