With less than 100 days before election day amidst the deadliest disease outbreak of our lifetime, many election officials across the country are scrambling to expand voting by mail, early voting and other alternatives to showing up on election day so Americans can exercise their right to vote without risking their lives in the process. As the debate over alternatives to in-person voting plays out in our national discourse, another voting right under the law is equally under attack because of COVID-19 but has received little attention: the rights of workers to vote on union representation under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
The National Labor Relations Board has been forbidden from conducting elections online in every congressional appropriations bill since 2012, in no small part because of baseless concerns on the part of anti-union members in the House of Representatives like Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who said that conducting NLRB elections electronically risks “hacking, fraud and coercion.”
This claim is absurd. Unions routinely conduct internal elections online with a level of transparency and accountability that prevents interference by any parties involved – including the Teamsters, who regularly oversee contract referendums electronically. The National Mediation Board (NMB), which oversees union elections for workers under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), has been conducting elections electronically without incident since 2007 because there are simple and easy-to-implement safeguards that can be put in place during a union election to prevent fraud and protect the right to a secret ballot. Even if there were incidence of wrongdoing, the NLRB already has a process to address that – a company can file an objection to an election, the labor board will investigate it and provide remedy if they find merit to the objection.
While anti-union Republican lawmakers like Foxx and Rep. Tim Wahlberg (R-Mich.) are pulling imaginary, bad-faith objections to online union elections out of a hat, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented very real, unimagined threats to rights and safety of both non-union workers and NLRB staff members. COVID-19 outbreaks in industries like meat processing and sanitation have laid bare just how dangerous life can be for the millions of American workers who don’t have collective bargaining rights that allow them to negotiate the health and safety conditions of their workplace. If these workers file for an NLRB election, conducting those elections in person during a pandemic is at best incredibly difficult, but in most cases virtually impossible (voting by mail is also an option, but employers usually object to it). As for the staff of the NLRB, their own union has lambasted the labor board for issuing guidelines on in-person elections that put their own staff and the entire public at risk.
There is currently bipartisan legislation with more than 60 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, H.R. 7485, that repeals the provision that prevents the NLRB from conducting elections electronically and appropriates $1 million to the NLRB to either create a system for electronic voting or adopt the one currently in place at the NMB. In the words of Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who wrote the legislation, “if you took politics completely out of this, no sane person would say we should have in-person NLRB elections when we can conduct them electronically with complete confidence, and even save taxpayer money and be more efficient.”