By HOWARD FISCHER
PHOENIX-Having lost the White House, Arizona businesses are launching a state initiative designed to preempt federal legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize.
The measure, launched early last week would constitutionally guarantee the right of Arizonans to have a secret ballot. That already is protected in Arizona in voting for candidates for public office and on ballot measures. The real aim is to extend that to elections by employees to decide if they want to unionize.
Backers need more than 230,000 signatures by July 2010 to put the measure before voters that year.
The target is federal "card check" legislation, more formally known as the Employee Free Choice Act.
Under current law, a union first has to get cards from a majority of workers seeking certification. That leads then to a secret vote -- a vote that sometimes results in the defeat of the union despite the interest expressed.
The proposal, which President-elect Barack Obama supports, would require that a union be formed once a majority signed cards in support. There also are provisions designed to make it easier for unions to force employers to bargain with them.
While the bill has failed in prior years, the change in the White House, coupled with more Democrats in Congress, could make it impossible for businesses to kill it this coming year. That is why they are trying to get states perceived to be friendly to business, like Arizona, to preempt the federal law on a state by state basis.
Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute, and a member of the SOS Ballot advisory board, acknowledged that federal law normally trumps a conflicting state law or constitutional provision.
"But there are a number of factors courts look at, including the importance of the relative interests," he said. Bolick said the "significant interest" in a secret ballot outweighs a card check plan.
"The only interest it serves is making it easier for unions to organize," Bolick said. "It doesn't protect workers in any way."
Rebekah Friend, executive director of the state AFL-CIO, said card check legislation does not eliminate secret ballots but simply provide employees an alternate method of organizing.
She said cards signed by workers calling for an election are not confidential and can be examined by management. That, Friend said, results in "closed door meetings, intimidation, threats, things like that" before the election.
A card check system, she said, short circuits that second step.
But Sydney Hay, who lobbies on behalf of mining interests in Arizona, said the federal proposal will make it easier for union organizers to harass and intimidate employees into signing the cards even though they really don't want a union.
She said there are instances where virtually all of the workers sign "interest" cards calling for an election but the actual vote goes against the union. Hay said the constitutional language her group wants adopted here will protect against intimidation, whether by management or labor.
"You get to vote secretly," she said. "That way, neither the employer nor the union organizers know how you personally voted."
Card check legislation has been a top priority of unions which are facing declining membership. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said more than 20 percent of workers belonged to a union in 1983; last year that figure was just 12.1 percent.
In Arizona, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, union membership has slid from 14.3 percent of all workers in 1983 to 9.7 percent. Among private employers, union membership went from 8.6 percent to 6.5 percent.
Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, warned that if the federal measure becomes law, "this great recession will turn into a depression."
"You're creating an additional pressure for companies, particularly manufacturers, to look abroad for where they want to locate," Hamer said.
During the presidential campaign, an Obama spokesman said the candidate supported card check, because it leaves it up to workers whether they want or need a secret election. And Hilda Solis, whom Obama chose to be secretary of labor, has called it "vital legislation."
Identical measures are being launched today in Arkansas and Missouri. Backers, organized as Save Our Secret Ballot, also are working to get legislatures in Nevada and Utah to put the measure before voters there.