Potential port strike shows that Big Labor needs big reform

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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’Tis the season — at least for strikes. Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed the death of Hostess and its Twinkie (until someone buys the brand), a teacher strike in Chicago, a Thanksgiving Eve strike at Los Angeles International Airport, failed union walkouts at Wal-Mart and New York City’s fast food restaurants, and an eight-day, $8 billion strike at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California.

Rounding out the list is the looming threat of a strike at all of the ports on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Late last week the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) authorized a strike, if a new, union-friendly contract isn’t reached by December 29. If that date comes and goes, then 14,500 ILA members may be on the picket line.

The economic consequences of such a strike will be disastrous. The ports in question deal with 65 percent of America’s international trade by value, contribute roughly $3.5 trillion to the American economy, and support more than 13 million jobs nationwide.

But put aside, if you can, the economic questions. A strike like this also raises profound questions about whether unions are helping or harming their own members.

How many of those 14,500 ILA members want to strike? We have no way of knowing — and those workers have no way of letting their union bosses know, either. The decision to strike was made by the ILA’s tiny 200-member wage committee. The committee comprises just over 1.3 percent of the ILA’s total membership, and yet it’s pushing for a damaging strike that could end up costing union members their jobs.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing happened at Hostess. Right before the Twinkie’s demise, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union called a strike to protest the bankrupt company’s latest contract offer. Many of the union members undoubtedly knew that a strike wasn’t in their best interest, yet their ability to avert the coming crisis was limited. In a sense, their own union had turned against them.

Everyone knows the end of the story. Twinkie production died, America cried, and unions blamed corporate America and the one percent. But what the union didn’t do — and what the ILA shows no signs of doing right now — was acknowledge that the motives of its official leadership may not have matched the interests of its members. In fact it couldn’t know if these two camps were aligned because there was no secret ballot vote on whether to strike.

The Twinkie experience is what now appears to be reality at the ILA, where a super-minority — the union’s own one percent — is playing with the paychecks of over 14,500 people.

These union members deserve more. They deserve the opportunity to vote via secret ballot on potential strikes and a leadership that represents their interests. The Employee Rights Act (ERA), a labor reform bill that is set to be reintroduced in 2013, will give workers these rights, and more.

The ERA makes a secret ballot vote mandatory before any union goes on strike. By replacing the intimidating voice-vote — or no vote at all — with the secret ballot, union members will be able to vote their conscience without fear of reprisal.

If passed, the ERA would require unions to recertify their right to represent their members every three years. Currently, just 7 percent of union members actually voted for the union that represents them. Just like politicians that have to be re-elected, the ERA’s mandatory re-election requirement means that workers will be able to ensure that their union provides the proper return on their dues.

America’s economy is teetering on the edge of a cliff. More union unrest, driven by union leaders who are out of touch with their dues-paying members, will only help push us over the edge. The ERA can prevent this from happening while giving workers the freedom they deserve. Without it, strikes like the ILA’s looming port picket will only leave more employees adrift at sea.

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that as many as 65,000 ILA members could go on strike. The ILA has announced that, in fact, just 14,500 workers are potential strikers.