By Glenn Spencer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Whatever one thinks of the outcome, there’s no question that the 2020 elections saw a surge in voting, as expressed by the nearly 2.3 million Alabama voters who cast ballots. Exercising this right is critical to our democracy.
But voting isn’t limited to determining the identity of our elected officials. Workers also have the right to vote on whether or not to form a union at their workplace. This can be just as critical a decision as choosing a member of Congress, and arguably has a bigger impact on a worker’s day-to-day life. For some workers in Alabama, how these votes are cast could be critical. Done properly, workers get to make an informed choice. If not, workers may lose out on the opportunity to make a critical decision about their place of work.
Union organizing elections are supervised by a small federal agency known as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board). The Board typically holds elections in person, at the workplace in question, so that it’s easier for workers to vote and that as many as possible have the opportunity to do so. The Board can, and does, make many accommodations to ensure that live voting takes place, such as holding elections at night, on weekends, or multiple locations. In a normal year, such as 2019, in-person elections make up more than 90 percent of union elections and are clearly the Board’s preferred method.
COVID, of course, has upended many things. The Board has been forced to consider the safety of voters and its own staff who oversee elections. As a result, the Board has increasingly turned to mail-in ballots. From March 15 to September 30 of last year, roughly 90 percent of elections were done by mail.
But unlike what we saw in November’s elections, where turnout increased, when the NLRB conducts mail-in ballots, turnout seems to drop significantly. According to the NLRB’s records, turnout during in-person union elections was over 92 percent. With mail-in ballots, that fell to a little over 70 percent. This matters in union elections around the country, and in Alabama. Another concern is that with in-person voting, a Board agent is on site monitoring election procedures. No such oversight is possible with mail-in ballots.
To give workers the greatest opportunity to make their voices heard, the NLRB needs to answer two key questions. First, why is it that participation drops for mail-in ballots? Are ballots being spoiled without the guidance of an on-site Board agent? Does it pose more of an inconvenience for workers? The second key question is whether in-person voting can be safely conducted. The answer would seem to be yes, as November’s elections showed. In addition, employers know a lot more about Covid now than they did in March of last year. Safety protocols used in the workplace, such as PPE, distancing, and ventilation, can be used by NLRB officials and voters.
All of this matters, because the decisions taken during union elections are likely to have impacts on workers for years if not decades (unions can be decertified, but it is relatively rare).
Unions can bring advantages and disadvantages to workers. In some industries it means higher wages. But it can also mean payment of union dues, rigid work rules and the inability of a business to reward workers for their individual initiative and performance. For employers it can also, unfortunately, mean being tied to ailing union pension funds, a number of which are on the brink of insolvency. For workers considering union representation, it is their decision to make on which of these factors is, on balance, more important.
Given the stakes, the NLRB must ensure the maximum opportunity for workers to make their opinions known, so long as it can be done safely. Workers in Alabama deserve no less.
Glenn Spencer is Senior Vice President of Employment Policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce