Unions Know All about Voter Suppression Labor History Should Serve as a Warning as to How Bad It Can Get

By Richard D Kahlenberg / Moshe Z Marvit | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), October 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Unions Know All about Voter Suppression Labor History Should Serve as a Warning as to How Bad It Can Get


Richard D Kahlenberg / Moshe Z Marvit, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


At a time when politics has produced several near government shutdowns and put the United States on the brink of its first default, still more shocking is the move by many Republican state legislatures to disenfranchise groups of traditionally Democratic voters by passing voter ID laws.

These laws, passed in eight states, including Pennsylvania, and being pushed in many others, appeared to come out of nowhere to solve a problem that has not been shown to exist. Thankfully, a judge on Tuesday essentially stayed Pennsylvania's law for this year's elections, but it remains in place.

Statements by architects of the new laws have revealed what's really at play. Most notoriously, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, proudly announced that the voter ID law he helped pass would "allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." Then there was the county GOP chair in Ohio who bluntly explained why the legislature wanted to limit early voting hours only for certain voters, saying the state should "not accommodate the urban -- read African-American -- voter-turnout machine."

This transparent attempt to manipulate the political system and deny people their civil rights outrages fair-minded people. But there is a parallel form of voter suppression that has received much less attention: the effort to suppress workers' rights to form or join a union. Just as 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.

Union suppression for political gain is not new. Labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan has described how Republicans pushed anti-labor reforms in the late 1940s to slow the rapid growth of the Democratic Party. In the 1970s, teacher union leader Albert Shanker pointed out that pro-union labor law reform would change "the entire politics of the Congress of the United States." Journalist John Judis has explained how recent legislation to limit public-sector unions in Wisconsin and other states is the culmination of a 20-year effort by Republicans to lessen the support that public employees can provide to Democratic candidates.

The right to organize at work is fundamental and flows from the First Amendment right of association. Employee rights was one of the central pillars of the civil rights movement, along with political, social and educational equality.

Voting in both union and presidential elections should be free and fair. But just as Republicans have used voter ID laws in an attempt to discourage Democratic constituencies from voting, they have used opposition to the "card check" provision of the Employee Free Choice act to discourage workers from joining or starting unions.

In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain argued against card check, which would allow the creation of a union in a rolling election once a majority of employees signed off, calling the right to a secret ballot in a union election "fundamental to democracy." But, just as holding secret-ballot union elections sounds as reasonable as voter ID -- well, you show your ID to cash a check or board a flight, don't you? …

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