SALT LAKE CITY — States'-rights advocates and business owners called for voters Monday to pass an amendment to the Utah Constitution mandating secret ballots in all elections, including workplace votes on whether to form unions.
State law already requires secret ballots for all elections. But supporters say Amendment A would strengthen Utah's case in the likely scenario of a legal challenge if Congress passes the Employee Free Choice Act in its post-election, lame-duck session.
The federal legislation would institute "card check," meaning that a simple majority of employees could create a union in any workplace by signing up. Opponents of that act — and supporters of the state amendment — say such open votes would leave workers vulnerable to coercion and intimidation by labor groups pushing for unions.
Supporters said the amendment protects workers and is not anti-union. One of them, Jonathan Johnson, president of Overstock.com, likened pressure from pro-labor forces during unionization votes to the annoyance of door-to-door salesmen.
"We can't have that when employees are deciding whether or not to unionize," he said.
Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, which helped push the secret-ballot measure through both houses of the state Legislature with two-thirds majorities, said the Goldwater Institute and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff would defend it in court. Goldwater constitutional scholar Clint Bolick drafted the amendment along with Mike Lee, GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by fellow Republican Bob Bennett.
"We are preserving the status quo, in which workers have the right to a secret ballot," Lee said. "That's all we're trying to do."
Shurtleff said that since several states would join in any legal battle with the federal government, the cost to Utah would be minimal, as with the health care reform challenge, which was capped at $5,000.
The amendment would "make sure those in positions of power are not looking over your shoulder," said Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, the measure's House sponsor.
The Senate sponsor, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the measure enjoys widespread support that is even higher among union families.
Jim Judd, president of the Utah AFL-CIO, disputed those claims of support, calling the amendment "a solution looking for a problem." He said the state's constitution has worked well and actually allows for unionization by majority sign-up, with the employer's consent. That process, not a secret-ballot election, has created at least three unions at private companies in the last year and a half, Judd said.
He said about 10 percent of the state's work force is unionized. The AFL-CIO has 43 affiliates and 45,000 members in Utah, Judd said.
Utah is a right-to-work state, meaning workers can not be forced to join a union and employers can not discriminate based on union membership, though Judd said such cases are very difficult to prove. There are far more cases of coercion by employers than by unions, he said.
The amendment will be on the ballot Nov. 2 and will require a simple majority to pass.