Why Don’t Workers Deserve the Same Rights as Congress?

This op-ed column was originally published at Investors.com

By Akash Chougule

What’s good for the goose ought to be good for the gander — unless the goose happens to be Democrats in Congress. On November 30, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was re-elected as House minority leader by her colleagues, who voted in a secret-ballot election. Yet this is the same type of election that congressional Democrats, egged on by their labor-union backers, have routinely sought to deny to millions of workers nationwide.

Free and fair elections at every level of American government depend on voters making their own choices without fear of intimidation or reprisal. That was certainly true of House Democrats on Wednesday. Imagine if every member had been forced to publicly declare whether they were voting for Ms. Pelosi or her challenger, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. Those who voted for Ryan might have opened themselves up to retaliation.

Unfortunately, this hypothetical for Congress is a reality in millions of workplaces across the country. Federal labor law permits labor unions to be certified or recertified on the basis of so-called card checks. Union representatives conduct a card check by questioning workers (often publicly) on where they stand regarding a certification decision, asking them to openly sign their name on a card. This signature is a legally binding agreement representing the worker’s support for the union; if over 50% of workers sign a card, then an employer must recognize the union.

Although union certification decisions can be made by secret ballots, card checks have become an increasingly common method of unionization in recent years. The most recently available data provided by the National Labor Relations Board show that nearly 40% of union certifications as of 2009 were the result of such a card check.

As a result, more workers are losing the freedom to privately decide whether joining a union is the right decision. But not only does this often force workers to make snap judgments, it also opens up the possibility of harassment and intimidation. Workers in many states have testified to this.

One Indiana manufacturing employee testified to Congress in 2011 that union representatives were relentless in their pressure during a union certification process. “They’d approach us during our lunch breaks. They would even follow us to our vehicles at the end of the day and some of us even to our homes.”

After being harangued incessantly, another worker testified that “The only way, it seems, to stop the badgering and pressure is to sign the card.”

Union organizers aren’t the only ones who make card-check decisions a nightmare for workers. Some report that their own co-workers turn against them. Because card checks allow everyone in a workplace to know how workers feel about the union, it opens dissenters up to reprisal.

One Indiana employee spoke about threats she received after a card check. “I have my reasons for the way that I voted. That’s nobody else’s business, and had it not been for the card check, nobody would know if I was for or against.” Countless similar stories have been reported in recent years.

Such actions are precisely why the secret-ballot election is so critically important. And that’s why congressional Democrats used a secret ballot in their recent leadership election. Yet many of those same Democrats actively sought to deny workers a right to private ballots for their union representation, even introducing legislation in recent years — the grossly misnamed Employee Free Choice Act — that would effectively neuter the practice altogether and make card checks mandatory in all American workplaces.

And although that particular bill failed, congressional Democrats continue trying to make card checks the end-all, be-all method of certifying a union. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who joined the party as part of his presidential campaign, introduced a similar bill last year called the Workplace Democracy Act.

Under such regimes, workers would have even less freedom to use their judgment regarding union membership. But even without these bills, workers are too often forced to accept union representation they don’t want. Data from the Heritage Foundation show that 94% of unionized workers have either never been given the opportunity to vote on their own unionization, or voted against the union that represents them.

Fortunately, there is legislation in Congress seeking to protect workers’ rights to confidential ballots and union certification votes. The Employee Rights Act, introduced by Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will likely be reintroduced when the 115th Congress convenes in January. It guarantees workers’ right to secret-ballot elections, not only for unionization drives but also for strikes. This would protect every workers’ fundamental right. As polling from the Center for Union Facts shows, a stunning 85% of union households support this provision.

Democrats in Congress are sure to oppose the Employee Rights Act, as they have for years. But their hypocrisy couldn’t be more brazen. Nancy Pelosi was just re-elected using the same election process that she and her colleagues would gladly deny to American workers. The right to free and fair elections is too important to be restricted to the halls of Congress and not the factory floor.

Akash Chougule is the policy director of Americans for Prosperity.