Tennessee workers deserve a private vote on union representation

As an hourly employee for a Detroit automaker, I was forced to join the United Auto Workers union and pay its dues for nearly 20 years. It was simply a condition of employment – say “yes” to the union or say “goodbye” to my job. I did not have a choice.

That was in Michigan, which fortunately became a right-to-work state in 2012. More than 140,000 workers like me opted out of their union membership after that. Now Tennessee – which has a thriving auto manufacturing industry that continues to grow at record pace – has an opportunity to safeguard the rights of workers for years to come.

The citizens of Tennessee have already taken a crucial first step. A right-to-work amendment to the state constitution captured almost 70% of voters’ support in the last election – and passed in all of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Tennessee citizens and workers have sided with workplace freedom and rights, and they have every reason to be proud and excited for the future.

What's the difference between secret-ballot elections and card checks?

But even with right-to-work protections in place, employees still face union intimidation when it comes to how workers decide whether they want to unionize. Union organizing campaigns can be stressful on a worker.

Two options are typically available. The first is a private, or secret-ballot, election. Workers have the right to vote privately, without intimidation or anyone knowing how they vote. It’s similar to the way Americans vote for political candidates at the ballot box. The secret ballot protects a worker from intimidation from either the company or union organizers.

The other method is called card check. With this approach, union officials collect signatures directly from workers until they reach the number required to begin representing that bargaining unit. With no right to privacy, employees may face intimidation and the threat of consequences as union representatives push for signatures.

You can probably guess which of the two methods the unions prefer.

I know first-hand workers who are afraid of pushing back. There is a fear factor, a tense apprehension about saying anything against union executives or deviating from what they tell you to do.

Legislation would enact secret ballots

Here’s why this issue matters to Tennessee. The UAW, the Detroit-based union with a long history of corruption, has the ability to nag, push and coerce workers until they provide the necessary number of signatures.

Union officials can walk up to workers on the job, visit them at home and call them repeatedly. I’ve even heard stories of union cards designed to look like a simple request to hold an election. In reality, the worker’s signature is authorizing actual union representation. Imagine if our democratic elections were held like a union intimidation vote.

Now policymakers can protect the right to a secret ballot for workers at future plants across the state.

State legislation, House Bill 1342/Senate Bill 650,introduced by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson aims to enact secret-ballot protections. The bill will guarantee that any future business that takes state taxpayer incentive dollars would be obligated to protect the rights of its employees by providing a private or secret ballot election. This legislation, if passed, would protect workers from strong-armed union tactics regarding the vote on whether or not to unionize.

When Tennessee workers enter a plant, they shouldn’t have to leave their right to privacy at the door. Nor should they be subjected to intimidation, peer pressure or coercion on the subject of unionization. With a secret-ballot law in place, Tennessee can offer its workers peace of mind, allowing them to continue focusing on their jobs while their decision about unionization remains private – theirs, and theirs alone.

Tennessee’s economic development and expanding industry means a booming economy. But Tennessee should protect workers and taxpayer dollars, too. That requires Tennessee legislators to make sure that workers are not coerced by unions – the right to vote is as important as the right to work.

Terry Bowman, a former UAW worker, is a contributor to Workers for Opportunity and a board member of the Institute for the American Worker.

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