The Georgia Senate passes a bill aimed at restricting workers' ability to form unions

Workers around the world, unite – but only if you first hold a secret election.

That's what the state Senate said Thursday when it passed a party-line union bill backed by Gov. Brian Kemp. Senate Bill 362 bans companies opening stores in Georgia from receiving government incentives if they recognize unions unless workers vote to unionize in a secret ballot.

Sen. Mike Hodges. Ross Williams/Georgia recorder

“The bill targets only voluntary actions by companies that agree to accept certain incentives, regardless of the outcome of a unionization effort,” said bill sponsor, Brunswick Republican Sen. Mike Hodges. “It does not prohibit a company's employees from unionizing and does not require the employer to oppose union efforts in any way. Employers are free to agree to the holding of union elections. However, employers will only lose their eligibility for government incentives if they decide to forego secret ballot elections when they are available.”

Hodges said the bill would not apply to a company that previously had a labor agreement requiring new locations to recognize a union.

The other route to unionization that this bill seeks to avoid is what is known as card checking. It is less formal and involves collecting signatures from employees, usually on cards.

Acworth Republican Sen. Ed Setzler said secret ballots allow people to vote according to their conscience without intimidation or pressure and that's why they are used for everything from council elections to presidential elections. He said the Democratic caucus and unions are using secret ballots to elect leadership.

“When you work side by side with people in an environment that matters, whether you're running a union yourself, whether you're operating side by side in a dangerous workplace, it's important that there is peace among us, and this Maintaining peace – a secret. “Voting to uphold the right of conscience is crucial,” said Setzler.

Senator Ed Setzler. Ross Williams/Georgia recorder

Atlanta Democratic Sen. Donzella James, who said she was a union member for air traffic controllers, the U.S. Postal Service and Georgia Public Schools, said a union vote would be a different scenario than the type of election most people are familiar with . If a majority of workers sign a union membership agreement, employers can choose to accept the union voluntarily or they can still call a secret ballot, she said.

“Voluntary recognition is beneficial for unions as it allows the union to begin negotiations immediately,” she said. “Secret elections can take months to conduct, and employers often use intimidation tactics to prevent their employees from approving their unions. Currently, employers spend over $400 million per year on union avoidance consultants.”

Unless potential unions can demonstrate they have overwhelming support and make voluntary recognition a clear choice, owners can use their financial advantage to put their thumb on the scale, said Sandy Springs Democratic Sen. Josh McLaurin.

“The employer still owns the means of production,” he said. “They are still the economic power in the room. What are you doing? It's what's called a captive audience meeting: all employees meet, every employee has to come and listen to all the employer's talking points about why unions are such a bad idea.”

“So a secret vote that lasts weeks gives an employer the opportunity to do a lot of things, things that amount to intimidation tactics, which is why voluntary recognition is an extremely important tool for unions to be able to achieve that level of participation,” he added .

Atlanta Democratic Sen. Jason Esteves said the bill exceeds state power and violates national labor law and that unions would sue.

Senator Jason Esteves speaks out against SB 362. Some Democrats wore red bandanas in honor of a group of West Virginia miners known as the Red Neck Army who took up arms in the nation's largest labor uprising. Ross Williams/Georgia recorder

“The lobbyists and the special interests who wrote the bill know it probably won’t hold up in court,” he said. “They also know that there will be lawsuits over this that will eat up taxpayer dollars, and that Georgia taxpayers will ultimately have to foot the bill.” But they believe they've found a loophole, so they want this to be a test case . They want this to go to court because they hope the Supreme Court will allow them to strike down the National Labor Rights Act.”

Republicans disputed that idea. Sen. Bo Hatchett, a Republican from Cornelia, said Arizona passed a ballot initiative declaring that the right to vote by secret ballot for worker representation is essential.

“And it’s over. And it was challenged. And the federal judge said, “You know what? No, that can stay. Federal law doesn’t conflict with that,” Hatchett said. “How can we avoid doing less? This is a disingenuous argument.”