Eyes on the Prize? Business groups borrow voting rights imagery in fighting labor bill

As the battle grows over the Employee Free Choice Act -- one of the biggest pieces of labor legislation in decades -- corporate lobbyists are taking a new tack, saying their campaign against the bill is really a stand for voting rights.

That's the message of Save Our Secret Ballot -- or SOS Ballot -- a group of Republican and corporate leaders campaigning aggressively against the measure, which among other things would allow workers to form a recognized union through signing up membership cards rather than through an election.

Fearing that Congress may pass and President Obama sign the Act, SOS Ballot is planning an end-run around the bill by getting legislatures in conservative states to pass constitutional "secret ballot" amendments that would prevent card-check.

On Jan. 21, the corporate-backed group said it will roll out campaigns in Georgia, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota. Since then, the SOS website has added Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada and Utah to the list.

It's debatable whether the laws will pass, or would even have legal force in the private sector. As Prof. Jeffrey Hirsch at the University of Tennessee law school has noted, the National Labor Relations Act is the final word on how unions are organized and recognized.

So the campaign is largely designed to score political points -- and in that larger battle, SOS Ballot aims to re-cast the war against card check as the latest chapter in the struggle for voting rights. In a section on "Secret Ballot History," the SOS website lays it on thick:
The use of a secret ballot in America was first deemed necessary to protect the voting rights of recently freed slaves after the Civil War. Voter intimidation during southern reconstruction was rampant, with African American first-time voters being threatened with physical violence, even lynching, based on how their publicly known ballots were cast. [...]

From the lynchings of freed American slaves who dared to vote for the first time, to the purple-stained thumbs of voters in newly freed countries, the right to a secret ballot has been won through the spilled blood of freedom-loving patriots. It is the hallmark of a democratic society that must never be abridged.
Such stirring words in the defense of racial justice and voting rights might come as a surprise considering the leaders of anti-union organization. Among the group's leadership:

* Former Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook (R), who left office after getting mired in the Jack Abramoff scandal and was suffered a major defeat in his 2006 run for governor. While in Congress, he fought to remove measures in the Voting Rights Act to provide bi-lingual ballots in communities with high levels of immigrants.

Clint Bollock, a right-wing attorney who authored a book called The Affirmative Action Fraud and has vigorously promoted school vouchers.

* John Loudon (R), a Missouri state senator, who -- in addition to for pushing for A.D. and B.C. to be the "official dating standard" in "acknowledgement of God" -- in 2008 led the charge for a voter ID bill which voting rights groups charged would disenfranchise African-Americans.

In any event, proponents of the Employee Free Choice Act point out that it doesn't stop unions from pursuing elections. However, it does give workers an alternative to expensive election campaigns which are often far from free given rampant employer intimidation. As the international group Human Rights Watch noted in a report this week [pdf] endorsing the Act:
US labor law currently permits a wide range of employer conduct that interferes with worker
organizing. Enforcement delays are endemic, regularly denying aggrieved workers their right to an "effective remedy." Sanctions for illegal conduct are too feeble to adequately discourage employer law breaking, breaching the international law requirement that penalties be "sufficiently dissuasive" to deter violations.

Unfair union election rules allow employers to engage in one-sided, aggressive anti-union campaigning while denying union advocates a similar chance to respond and banning union organizers from the workplace or even from distributing information on company property. If confronted with clear evidence of employee support for a union, employers can force a formal election and manipulate the often lengthy pre-election period to pound their anti-union drumbeat and, in many cases, violate US labor laws, confident that any penalties will be minimal and long delayed.

An effort to address such threats to workers today seems more in line with the freedom struggles SOS Ballot claims to embrace.