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Secret Ballots May End in Union Elections If Obama Becomes President

How would you like elections without secret ballots? To most people, the notion of getting rid of secret ballots is absurd. This is modern-day America. Such an idea could not be seriously considered, right?

People support secret balloting for very obvious reasons. Politics frequently generates hot tempers. People can put up yard signs or wear political buttons if they want. But not everyone feels comfortable making his or her political positions public. Many would rather vote without fearing that their choice will offend or anger someone else.

Secret balloting has solved another potential problem: vote buying, which they essentially ended in U.S. elections. After all, why pay people if you couldn't be sure how they voted?

But if Barack Obama becomes president, secret ballots seem destined to end for at least one type of election: union certifications.

Currently, when 50 percent of workers in a company sign statements to unionize, that merely sets up a second stage, where workers vote by secret ballot to determine if the company would be unionized. Under the new proposal, using a system called “Card Check,” unionization would occur as soon as half the workers had signed cards stating that they favor union representation.

In other words, up until now, a worker could placate union supporters and sign a statement saying that he wanted a union and then vote against the union when he was protected by the secrecy of the voting booth.

While the Bush administration promised to veto the so-called “Employee Free Choice Act,” Obama has made his feelings about the legislation very clear. Last year, Obama promised, “We will pass the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s not a matter of 'if'; it’s a matter of 'when.' We may have to wait for the next president to sign it, but we will get this thing done.”

Many are predicting Democrats will increase their current majorities, but even if they keep them as they are now, there is already substantial support in Congress. In votes last year, almost exclusively along party lines, Democrats in the House easily passed the bill by 241 to 185. The Senate support was closer, with 51 senators supporting it and 48 opposing, but Democrats are predicting that they will gain enough seats to withstand a filibuster.

Why have unions placed this at the top of their legislative agenda? Changing the rules would only make a difference if workers were unwilling to vote in private for unionization, but apparently there are a lot of companies where unions think that this change will make a difference. After all, the AFL-CIO calls the “Employee Free Choice Act” its million-member mobilization.

Unions are making an all-out push to get this passed, planning to spend $360 million on the 2008 election, $200 million more than in 2004 general election. Just one union alone, the Service Employees International Union, plans on spending $75 million this year, much of it to help the Democratic presidential nominee. Compare that to the $83 million that John McCain will be able to spend during the fall general election.

That's not all. The Service Employees International Union is already committed to making 10 million telephone calls early next year to congressmen to ensure this bill gets enacted.

Unions are understandably desperate to increase membership, as membership has been declining for decades, the share of private-sector workers who are union members falling from around 35 percent in the 1950s to 8.2 percent in 2007. Public-sector union membership has declined, but much more slowly, still representing 36 percent of government workers in 2007. The decline has continued under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Obama has promised in many ways to help unions and protect their workers from competition. He wants to renegotiate the NAFTA agreement signed under President Clinton. He opposes free trade agreements with such strong American allies as Colombia. He has long been opposed to educational vouchers, something teachers’ unions also strongly oppose. But despite all his troubles with working-class voters, it is hard to think of much else that Obama could promise unions.

Obama claims that strengthening unions is good because unions will “lift up the middle-class in this country once more.” But protecting teachers unions from competition comes at the expense of students. Protecting workers from trade competition comes at the expense of customers and even other workers (e.g., if you protect steel workers from competition, the prices of American-made cars rise relative to foreign-made ones).

Unionization virtually always raises some workers' salaries at the expense of other workers. If unions insist on increasing worker pay by threatening strikes that shut down companies, firms reduce the number of workers they hire. Some workers gain higher wages, but only at the expense of causing other workers to lose their jobs. Possibly this last point explains why unions want to scrape secret ballots.

It is hard to believe that Obama and Democrats really think that eliminating secret ballots is a good idea. Surely, they are not going to start proposing we start getting rid of secret ballots all together and let voters simply sign cards? But their desire to impose unionization, whether workers really want it, is overriding their common sense. Their proposal will make the country and most workers poorer.

John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.