UPDATED: State Labor Relations Board Makes up New Election Rules

Today was the first of four days during which a limited range of at-home child-care providers were able to vote about whether to transition from being independent businesswomen to being quasi-state-employees represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The range is “limited” because only providers who received a check from the state as a subsidy for their clients during the months of March through August of this year may vote.  Providers who’ve had such clients in the past, prior to March, are not eligible, even if they have every reason to believe that they’ll have such clients again.  If a majority of those voting in the elections — a number that observers are putting in the low dozens, so far — opt to unionize, any providers whose clients receive such subsidies in the future will either have to join the union or pay a fee to the SEIU in lieu of dues.

Given the schedule of election opportunities, some critics see the low turnout as something that’s happening by design.  Eligible voters could cast a ballot for one hour in Newport, this morning, one hour at the University of Rhode Island (URI), in the early afternoon, and one hour at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) campus in Lincoln in the late afternoon.  On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, providers will have four-hour evening windows to vote in Providence, Pawtucket, and Cranston, respectively.

In other states, low turnout has served the unions, with “majorities” that amounted to as little as 15% of all eligible providers, who imposed the unionization on the rest.  An observer in one of the above Rhode Island locations estimates that 75% of the women voting were wearing purple SEIU scarves.

The handling of “electioneering” rules is suspicious, as well.  At all three locations, security personnel told interested observers that they could not approach within 200 feet of the polling place.  At CCRI, a state trooper (vehicle pictured above) threatened one woman with arrest if she did not comply.  None of the observers reports having been carrying any signage or distributing materials that might be described as “electioneering.”

At URI, the observers were handed highlighted documents of General Law 28-7-12, which says that “employees shall have a right” to organize “free from interference, restraint, or coercion from any source,” and 28-7-17, which gives the State Labor Relations Board (SLRB) authority to “establish the rules governing the election.” This rationale for “police powers,” as one observer put it, is transparently thin.

Title 17 of the General Laws, pertaining to elections, explicitly applies “to all elections, except as may otherwise be provided by law.”  Per that title, actual electioneering is permitted beyond 50 feet from the polling place, with no limits on people who are not electioneering.  Two-hundred feet is the perimeter within which police officers serving at the polling place are charged to “preserve order” and empowered to make arrests, without warrant, of “any person detected in the act of violating the provisions” of state laws concerning the conduct of elections.

By contrast, the context around the SLRB’s rule-setting authority suggests that it is intended to apply to such matters as eligibility, location, and the rights of interested parties (e.g., to negotiate language, appeal votes, and so on).  However, even if that authority were so expansive as to give the SLRB the power to rewrite the state’s election laws for its own purposes, nowhere is it empowered to deputize police officers to enforce its rules on people who aren’t parties to the election.  Title 17 broadens police arrest powers only within Title 17, not within the SLRB’s statutes.

By repeatedly ruling that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, acting on behalf of taxpayers, had no standing to offer input as to the ballot or the timing of the election, the SLRB took an exceedingly narrow view of the parties with an interest in the election. The board also took a narrow view of its own power to schedule the election.

Now that the voting is underway, the board’s reserved behavior has reversed, and it is taking an extremely broad view of its authority to bar Rhode Islanders from simply observing the process as it unfolds.

From 200 feet away, it looks a lot like the fix is in.

ADDENDUM 10/28/13:

The document originally provided to the Current for this analysis was incomplete.  The observers at URI were also handed a highlighted page from the SLRB’s General Rules & Regulations document, which in section 8.02.7 specifies:

No electioneering (campaigning) will be permitted on the day of the election in the building or other facility where the balloting is taking place, or within two hundred (200) feet of said building or other facility. In the event that any party shall engage in prohibited conduct, as ascertained by the Board or its staff, the Board shall reschedule said election; and the party, which has engaged in the prohibited conduct, shall be responsible for all costs associated with the rescheduling.

This new information strengthens the argument presented above.  As suggested, the SLRB has no authority to empower the state police to arrest individuals for being too close to the polling place.  Even in cases in which there is electioneering, the remedy is for the board to void the election and schedule another one, most likely having to sue in an actual court to have the offender pay for the repeat.

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