Real labor reform would empower workers

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Richard Kahlenberg and Moshez Marvit’s new book, “Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right,” has ignited a debate on the important issue of labor reform. Yet Kahlenberg and Marvit miss the mark when it comes to expanding employee rights. Effective, well-thought-out labor reform would empower unionized employees to make more decisions about how their dues are spent and when to strike, and would give those employees the ability to choose whether or not to remain unionized.

Unfortunately, under current labor laws, many employees are stuck in unions for which they never had the opportunity to vote. A recent analysis of data from the National Labor Relations Board and the Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that less than 10 percent of currently unionized employees voted in favor of joining the union that collects their dues.

Elected representatives must stand for re-election, but unions face no federal requirement to be recertified by current employees. There is a procedure for completely removing a union — but it is so onerous by design that few people ever attempt the labor relations equivalent of a coup at the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the NLRB reports that in 2009 over one-third of all union certifications omitted a secret-ballot election.

A recent national poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation International found that just 13 percent of non-unionized U.S. workers want to join a union. National polling by Gallup has determined that overall union popularity is near an all-time low. It’s no coincidence that employees in over 20 new auto manufacturing plants have not voted to join a union. Nor is it likely that tens of thousands of employees, working in these many different plants for so many different companies, conspired to reject unions. The truth is, these individuals are making consistent, self-interested decisions. That explains why when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gave unionized state employees the opportunity to discontinue their union membership, most did exactly that. According to a recent survey, the primary reason that non-unionized workers avoid unions isn’t high dues or strikes, but the fear that joining a union will mean losing some of their individual autonomy.

Today, a pro-employee bill that supports workers’ desire for personal control is gaining traction in Congress. It sets aside the usual tension inherent in union-vs.-management power struggles. Instead, the Employee Rights Act (ERA) recognizes that all too often the real tension is between unions and employees. Each of its seven provisions — like a requirement that unions hold recertification elections every three years — is overwhelmingly popular. National polls by ORC have demonstrated that more than 80 percent of Americans from both union and non-union households support the bill’s provisions.

Simply put, the ERA guarantees more of the individual control we all want in our lives. It’s no surprise that employees seek more control over issues like strikes, secret-ballot votes and the forced use of dues money for political expenditures.

The ERA, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Tim Scott, has clear legislative battle lines. It’s hard to expect Democrats to let the bill become law, but just talking about the ERA’s provisions is jumpstarting a national conversation about how to really support those “who work hard and play by the rules.” When American citizens are better-educated about the possible changes to current labor law, real labor law reform won’t be far off.

Rick Berman is executive director of the Center for Union Facts. To learn more about the ERA, visit EmployeeRightsAct.com.

Richard Berman