Voter Suppression and Union Suppression Deny Basic Civil Rights

By Richard D. Kahlenberg & Moshe Z. Marvit

In a period where political purposes were behind several near government shutdowns, and on the brink of the first ever United States default, the most shocking political action has been the move by many Republican state legislatures to disenfranchise groups of voters that traditionally vote Democrat through new voter ID laws. These laws, passed in Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (and being pushed in many others), appeared to come out of nowhere to solve a problem that has not been shown to exist.

They are being presented as apolitical solutions to a pervasive problem, but political statements by architects of the new laws show that there is an anti-democratic political culture at play: House Majority Leader, Mike Turzai of Pennsylvania commented that the Voter ID law that he worked hard to pass would “allow Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” While drafting South Carolina’s Voter ID law, State Representative Alan Clemmons responded “amen” to a constituent’s email that counseled against offering help to poor, black voters that lacked transportation to get new IDs, that described this constituency to “a swarm of bees going after a watermelon.” An Ohio County GOP chair explained the state’s reason for limiting early voter hours for certain groups, saying, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.”

Attorney General Eric Holder linked these new laws to an ugly American past of political exclusion when, at the annual gathering of the NAACP — the group that has been at the helm of the national effort for the political and social inclusion of minorities for over a century — he likened these voter ID laws to poll taxes.

The blatant denial of civil rights coupled with transparent political manipulation rightly outrages fair-minded people. But there is a parallel form of voter suppression taking place that denies basic civil rights for partisan gain yet has received much less attention. This voter suppression effort is the decades-long effort to suppress workers’ rights to form or join a union. And just as the 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.

Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan has described how the Republicans pushed anti-labor reforms in the late 1940s in order to slow the rapid growth of the Democratic Party. Teacher unionist Albert Shanker interpreted Republican opposition to pro-union labor law reform in much the same way, stating that the legislation’s passage could have changed “the entire politics of the Congress of the United States.” The political results of decreased unionization is apparent from data that shows that in every election in the past 40 years union members voted Democrat at a significantly higher rate than their non-union counterparts. And John Judis has explained how the recent legislation in Wisconsin and other states is the culmination of a two-decade long effort by Republicans to lessen the campaigning and money that public sector employees provide to Democratic candidates.

The right to organize is, as we argue in our new book, Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right, a fundamental right closely linked to the First Amendment right of association. Employee rights constitute one third of what the civil rights movement fought for, along side education and political rights. The right to a voice and vote at the workplace includes many of the elements of basic political action, including democratic expression of preferences, compromise between opposing parties, and representation of constituent interests. The parallel between voting for a union and voting for President should be uncontroversial, with both the right and left employing the analogy. In 2008, when running for President, even John McCain used this framework in arguing against the card check provision of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), referring to workers’ right to a secret ballot in a union election as, “fundamental to democracy.”

Despite the intuitive logic to the argument that workers have a fundamental right to a free and fair choice to vote for or against a union, state and federal legislatures, courts, and employers have, by a thousand cuts, chipped away at the right. Employees’ rights to secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes have disappeared; workers’ freedom from onerous labor injunctions for engaging in activities that would be permitted by any other group of citizens have disappeared; states have been stripping from public sector workers the right to bargain collectively; and this past week the Republican platform included a provision for a national “right to work” law, which allows people to free ride and benefit from union contracts without having to pay anything.

For decades, anti-labor employers have fought to suppress employees’ rights to form or join a union — a right articulated broadly in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 — and these efforts have followed a similar trajectory as the current voter suppression efforts.

Starting after World War II, a coordinated campaign was mounted to reduce the power of unions, with many arguing that they were corrupt, infiltrated by communists, and needed to be reigned in. Though unions did indeed enjoy a strong political and social voice in American society, which was used to better employee wages and benefits and pass progressive legislation such as the Social Security Act, the charges against unions were grossly overstated and the reaction was disproportionate. After a great deal of lobbying from the National Association of Manufacturing, Congress passed over President Truman’s veto the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The result was to permanently weaken labor and place significant burdens on employees’ right to elect exclusive representatives to bargain for the terms and conditions of their employment.

Employers have followed suit, attacking organizing efforts vociferously. Some of the typical tactics used by employers are technically legal, but belie any claim to a free and fair election. These include tactics such as captive audience meetings, “opinions” on possible business closure or relocation if the union is elected, promises that if the union is elected the employer will essentially bargain in bad faith and will start the bargaining process at zero. Many employers cross the legal line, with relative impunity, thanks to the relative weakness of American labor law. These employers conduct illegal surveillance on workers and fire or discipline workers that support the union, in an attempt to scare others. Enforcement is so sparse, and the fines so slim, that companies have simply calculated that breaking the law is worth the risk.

The result of these coercive tactics preceding a union election is that workers have to overcome significant obstacles to even get to the point where they can vote. If they get the chance to vote, they do so in fear. This has led to a steep decline in union coverage in the private sector in America, from about a third of private sector workers in 1950 to less than 7% today. There are certainly other economic and social forces that have led to this change, but there are reasons to conclude that fierce employer opposition is largely to blame. First, this decline is unmatched in any other Western democracy, or even in America in sectors that are governed by different legal structures that tolerate less employer interference. Second, polls consistently show a much higher percentage of Americans responding that they would join a union if given the opportunity than are currently members of a union.

In today’s workplace in America, it takes real courage for a worker to exercise her right to form or join a union. The hurdles and dangers that the typical worker faces from employer intimidation, threats, captive audience meetings and the like, make modern union elections more akin to an election in an emerging democracy than one in America.  However, this current state of affairs did not happen all at once. Piece by piece, the right to a free and fair union election has eroded, to the point where the process fails to express workers’ preferences. The current attempts at voter suppression appear dispiritingly similar to the early efforts at labor suppression, and the labor context should inspire fear into how far voter suppression efforts 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.It originally appeared on the new and highly recommended labor blog, Unionosity.

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