Worker Freedom

Voters Rights for Workers in Tennessee and Georgia—and More?

Georgia is just a governor’s signature away from joining Tennessee in enacting a similar labor reform.

What do Tennessee and Georgia have in common? Besides the obvious answer of both being the subject of some great country songs, both states could soon share a policy that protects private sector workers’ right to cast a secret ballot in unionization votes.

Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pass such legislation last year. Sponsored by Speaker Cameron Sexton, HB 1342 requires companies seeking state subsidies to conduct unionization votes via secret ballot, if possible. It also requires that these businesses give employees the choice to share personal contact information with unions or keep it private.

Not following these guidelines can have consequences. Businesses that receive state subsidies and then take unionization votes using a method other than secret ballots can be required to reimburse all “money, grants, funds, or other incentives disbursed” by the state. Using card check—the process of collecting signed union authorization cards from workers to gather votes—as the voting method also makes a company ineligible to receive any “economic development incentives” from the state.

Card check votes are recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, but there are significant concerns about the neutrality and security of the process. Many of these concerns stem from the lack of oversight over how or when signed authorization cards are collected from workers, as this can create an opening for interference, including threats of violence. Conversely, secret ballots allow workers to cast the vote they want in private and away from interested parties. This protection from coercion and intimidation are among the many reasons reason federal, state, and local elections use secret ballots to protect voters’ rights and ensure election integrity. Notably, unions themselves use secret ballots to elect their leaders.

Now, Georgia is just a governor’s signature away from joining Tennessee in enacting a similar labor reform. Georgia’s SB 362 states that “to be eligible to receive an economic development incentive, an employer” cannot voluntarily recognize a unionization vote conducted via card check if a secret ballot option was possible. In other words, companies must commit to conducting any unionization votes via secret ballot to be eligible to receive and keep state subsidies. The Georgia bill also requires companies to obtain employees’ written consent before sharing personal contact information with a union.

Alabama is considering a bill with similar reforms. Recent introduced, SB 231 also ties state subsidies with businesses committing to conducting unionization votes via secret ballot and to obtaining employees’ written permission before sharing their contact information with unions. As the bill’s sponsor, Senator Arthur Orr  explains, “It’s good policy to have the private vote matter [and] to make sure that the employees… can keep their votes to themselves and not be coerced or bullied one way or the other.”

Like Tennessee and potentially Georgia’s and Alabama’s reforms, ALEC’s Taxpayers Protect Worker Act strives to protect workers’ personal information and their right to a secret ballot. Approved at the 2023 ALEC Annual Meeting, the model policy affirms that “whenever State funds or benefits are sought by a private business… such benefits [should] be conditioned on the private business agreeing not to waive its employees’ right to a secret ballot election when recognizing a labor organization.” It likewise states that employees and subcontractors have the right to decide if their personal contact information is shared with unions.

While efforts to protect election integrity usually focus on presidential and Congressional elections, some states are expanding the effort to protect workers’ votes and voices too. Through reforms like those described above, states like Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama emphasize that workers’ votes – like those of caucus chairs and union bosses – should be protected from intimidation, interference, and surveillance.