Utah workers could be intimidated and harassed into forming labor unions if the state doesn't adopt a business-backed bid to amend Utah's Constitution, supporters of the measure warned Monday.
Amendment A supporters invoked the images of former slaves, lynched for trying to vote, or Iraqis with purple ink on their fingers after voting for the first time.
At the same time, they conceded, they have no specific examples of union organizers harassing or pressuring workers to organize, and Article IV, Section 8, of the Utah Constitution already states: "All elections shall be by secret ballot."
"Decades ago there was abundant evidence of intimidation in other elections," said Mike Lee, an attorney for the Save Our Secret Ballot movement and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. "We haven't had intimidation in many, many decades in this country because we've had secret ballots. But we don't want that to come back."
The fear is that a Democratic Congress could pass the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would let workers pick whether to unionize under a secret ballot or a petition process called "card-check."
That card-check process is fraught with the potential for abuse and coercion, amendment supporters said.
But Jim Judd, president of the Utah AFL-CIO, said incidents of union organizers pressuring workers are rare and complaints usually unfounded. On the other hand, he said, employer coercion is common and typically takes place well before any secret vote.
"When you talk about coercion, you have to talk about who has the power to coerce," Judd said. "Is that the owner or manager who has the ability to hire, fire, demote, transfer or all kinds of punitive actions, or is that someone talking to them from the outside [about organizing]?"
Judd said Amendment A backers are willing to tinker with the Utah Constitution simply to set up a costly legal battle and make a political point if the Employee Free Choice Act passes. That, he said, is a solution looking for a problem.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said that, even though the Utah Constitution already has secret-ballot provisions, reiterating that sentiment specifically to union votes will strengthen the state's legal challenge to the federal law if Congress passes the choice act.
Utah is one of four states along with South Dakota, Arizona and South Carolina that will vote on a secret-ballot amendment in November.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who sponsored the amendment, said that "the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress" are determined to impose card-check so "employers and the union bosses will be able to look over the shoulder of those who are voting."
But Jonathan Johnson, president of Overstock.com and co-chairman of Save Our Secret Ballot Utah, said the measure is not partisan or anti-union.
Four proposed constitutional amendments on Utah's ballot
Amendment A • Shall the Utah Constitution be amended to specify that elections currently required to be by secret ballot include elections under state or federal law for public office, on an initiative or referendum, or to designate or authorize employee or individual representation?
Amendment B • Shall the Utah Constitution be amended to specify the residency requirements for a person appointed to fill a vacancy in the office of state senator or state representative; and prohibit a person appointed to the office of state senator or state representative from continuing to serve in that office if the person ceases to be a resident of the district for which the person was appointed?
Amendment C • Shall the Utah Constitution be amended to provide a property tax exemption to nonprofit entities for their water rights and specified facilities used within the state to irrigate land, provide domestic water, or provide water to a public water supplier; and land occupied by and, under certain conditions, immediately adjacent to some of those facilities?
Amendment D • Shall the Utah Constitution be amended to establish a five-member legislative ethics commission whose members may not include sitting legislators or registered lobbyists; authorize the commission to conduct an independent review of complaints alleging unethical legislative behavior; and authorize the Legislature to provide for procedures and requirements for filing a complaint; the qualifications, appointment, and terms of commission members; and commission duties, powers, operations, and procedures?