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AP Photo/Mark Humphrey / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a presentation on the planned factory to build Ford F-Series electric trucks and the batteries to power future electric Ford and Lincoln vehicles late last month in Memphis.

The fix may have been in for Ford's planned $5.6 billion manufacturing plant in West Tennessee, but some Republican legislators are planning to make sure it can't happen again.

"It" is the method to approve unionization for workers at the automobile plant where electric trucks will be made.

State Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, offered an amendment to the appropriations bill before the Tennessee legislature last week at its special session on incentives the state would provide Ford and its partner, SK Innovation. Her amendment would have prevented the union from allowing the United Auto Workers (UAW) to attempt to unionize the plant through a "card check" process in which workers sign authorization forms and which can invite intimidation and pressure.

Too late, said her fellow legislators. Her bill was tabled 64-24, and legislators voted to pass the supporting bill 90-3. She was one of two legislators not voting for the measure, her reasoning being not that she opposed the plant and the 6,000 jobs that come with it but that voting for it after offering the amendment would be a betrayal to the Hamilton County employers who backed her stance.

While the "card check" process is an acceptable National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) method of choosing unionization, workers and employers prefer a secret ballot like in all United States elections.

More than four out of five people surveyed supported secret ballots in union-organizing elections, according to a 2009 poll conducted for the National Retail Federation. And in a 2004 Zogby survey for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 78% of union members said they preferred keeping a secret-ballot process to one "less private."

We would guess those numbers either have remained stable or increased slightly since then.

The United Auto Workers twice attempted to establish a union at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant but was denied in monitored secret-ballot elections both times.

In the "card check" process, 30% of employees must sign cards or forms voicing support for a union to request a secret-ballot election. If the union gets signed cards by a majority (50% plus one) of employees, it can ask the NLRB and the employer for recognition by "card check." If the employer agrees, the union would become the exclusive bargaining representative for employees without having a secret-ballot election.

Ford, according to a Saturday story in the Times Free Press, has a voluntary, universal agreement with the United Auto Workers to use the "card check" method to achieve certification.

Indeed, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee told reporters last week he didn't push for a secret-ballot vote for the upcoming plant, and his administration officials testified in a Senate hearing during the special session to Ford's tacit agreement with the UAW.

That's where Smith wants to get involved. She wants to introduce a bill in next year's legislative session forbidding companies who receive economic incentives from the state from using the "card check" process to achieve unionization. She said she is working with an attorney on the bill.

However, the bill would not apply retroactively to Ford.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, acknowledged the subject of unions is likely to come up again in next year's session.

"I think there'll be some discussion about that when we come back in January — if there is any role that the state has in that or is that simply something left to the business itself as to decide whether they use card check or use secret ballot," he said.

Watson also noted last week the issue about "card check" was raised because Tennessee is a right-to-work state, meaning employees don't have to join a union at an employer represented by a union, even though the wages and benefits negotiated through a union apply to all employees. He said the state is likely to "ingrain [the right-to-work status] in our constitution."

"[W]e just need to have that conversation [about unions]," he said, "and see how it goes."

While a secret ballot in U.S. elections is not guaranteed by the Constitution, 44 states have constitutional provisions guaranteeing secrecy in voting, and the other six have statutory provisions guaranteeing it.

Whether Tennessee can forbid or limit the "card check" process that is approved by the NLRB is something Smith and the attorney with whom she is working will need to determine. We hope she is successful. We can't imagine any union official who would approve congressional and presidential elections through the "card check" method where their ballot is not secret, so we don't know a rational reason why any union anywhere in the country should want to reject a secret ballot vote on unionization.

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