Secret ballot amendment part of years-long labor battle
by Tim Lockette
Oct 08, 2012 | 5297 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY -- When they go to the polls on Nov. 6, Alabamians will vote on a state constitutional amendment that declares the secret ballot is fundamental to democracy.

But what seems like a simple affirmation of the voting process is actually another volley in a years-long battle, between business leaders and labor unions, over how unions are created.

"It's not anti-union, it's about the way unions do what they do," said Rep. Kurt Wallace, R-Maplesville, who sponsored the amendment in the Legislature.

Amendment 7 would "provide that the right of individuals to vote for public office, public votes on referenda or votes of employee representation" should be by secret vote, according to the wording on the November ballot.

Votes for public office and state amendments are already secret, and have been for some time. But for the last item on that list -- employee representation -- things are more complicated.

Under federal labor law, employees can start the process of unionizing a workplace through a procedure known as "card check," in which employees sign cards acknowledging they want to unionize. A successful card check vote can lead to a secret ballot in which employees vote on whether or not to unionize -- or, under some circumstances, it can lead directly to unionization.

Card check has been a flash point in the debate between unions and business leaders for several years. That's partly because of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill promoted by union leaders that would have expanded the powers and protections of the card-check vote. The bill has been proposed three times in Congress, but has never passed.

In recent years, conservatives have struck back. Four states have passed secret-ballot laws that require secret ballots -- blocking card-check-only union elections.

Wallace said he opposes card check because the secret ballot is the standard for democratic decision-making in most other areas of life. He said the lack of secrecy allows union leaders to intimidate co-workers into signing.

But Wallace is also frank about the fact that he doesn't want to see more unionization in Alabama's workplaces -- particularly the auto industry. He said the prospect of a union-free workplace is one of the things that attracted foreign carmakers to the state.

"We don't want to see happen to us what happened to Detroit," he said.

It's not clear that all local labor leaders even know about the amendment. Shane Mitchell, a spokesman for Steelworkers Local 12 in Gadsden, said Monday that he had not heard of the measure.

After consulting with union officials, Mitchell, whose local union represents workers at Gadsden's Goodyear tire plant, said the union was "100 percent against" the amendment.

"The way it's worded, it sounds like you're saying everybody should have the right to vote," he said. Instead, Mitchell said, the amendment would take away a voting method long used by unions.

Like many Southern states, Alabama is a right-to-work state, which means that employees can't be required to join a union even when one exists.

The 4,000 workers at Honda's auto plan in Lincoln are not unionized, though a group called Honda Workers United has advocated for unionization in recent years.

Attempts to reach Honda executives and representatives of Honda Workers United were unsuccessful Monday.

If passed, the amendment could put Alabama at odds with federal labor law. When Arizona passed a secret-ballot law in 2010, critics said it would curtail the card-check votes already allowed under federal law. The National Labor Relations Board took Arizona to court, arguing that it blocked alternate routes to unionization protected by the National Labor Relations Act. U.S. District Judge Frederick Martone ruled against the NLRB in a decision handed down in September, but noted that his opinion should not foreclose future challenges as the law begins being applied by the state.

Attempts to reach regional officials of the National Labor Relations Board were unsuccessful Monday.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @Tlockette_star
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