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Labor Hampered by Votes of Silence

Nothing is more basic to our democratic society than the principle of majority rule. But what if the eligible voters who fail to cast ballots were automatically recorded as voting 'no'? Ridiculous as it sounds

Nothing is more basic to our democratic society than the principle of majority rule. But what if the eligible voters who fail to cast ballots were automatically recorded as voting ‘no’?

Ridiculous as it sounds, that’s exactly what the country’s airline and railroad workers face when they vote on whether they want union representation.

Imagine if every election had such a rule. President Obama wouldn’t be president, since less than half the eligible voters turned out for last year’s presidential election. Most, if not all, congressional candidates would also have lost last year – or in any other election year – since voter turnout for congressional elections has typically been less than 40 percent.

It’s doubtful, in fact, that anyone would win any election under the rules that govern the transportation union elections. Other unions are covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which follows the simple democratic rule that it should be voters – and voters alone – who determine the outcome of elections. Non-voters have no voice in those elections – or in any other elections of any kind anywhere else.

The airline and railroad workers are covered by the Railway Labor Act. That law calls for the three-member National Mediation Board to set the rules for union elections.

As the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department has requested, the board is proposing to void the rule that has allowed non-voters to be counted as voting ‘no.’ The board has scheduled public hearings on the proposal – and is certain to hear heated arguments on both sides of the question.

The unions should have no trouble arguing their case. As President Edward Wytkind of the Transportation Trades Department notes, the current voting system “defies logic – makes no sense.” The unions are asking merely that the system be made “to conform to the norms of American democracy.”

Which means, of course, that “the majority of those casting a vote will decide the outcome and those who do not vote are not counted.” Wytkind wonders “how we can justify imposing higher turnout standards for airline and railroad union elections than we can for the highest office of the land?”

The answer should be obvious – but not to airline and railroad executives, who want to keep unionization of their industries at a minimum. Under the current election rules that the executives prefer, the odds clearly are with them.

Suppose, as often happens, that a majority of the employees of a particular airline or railroad who turn out to vote opt for unionization. Their votes, even if overwhelmingly pro-union, can be nullified if a higher number of workers simply fail to vote.

It’s what Wytkind calls a ‘veto by silence.’ And it’s usually the result of ’employer-run voter suppression campaigns’ that keep many workers from voting and are among the main reasons for the slowdown in airline unionization in recent years.

Some employers have increased their odds even more by including on their list of employees eligible to vote the names of employees who’ve resigned, been terminated or retired.

Employers can argue that if a worker doesn’t turn out to vote, it’s a sure sign the worker is not interested in unionization. But there can be no solid evidence of that unless the worker is allowed to actually cast a vote on the question.

Counting the worker’s non-vote as a ‘no’ vote violates basic democratic principles and the basic union rights promised all American workers.

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