Labor reform needs more than right-to-work

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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After the shockwaves made by the passage of right-to-work laws in the former union bastions of Indiana and Michigan, the Ohio Senate recently rejected a similar law for their state. This development has reformers asking themselves: Where do we go from here?

Not very far, unfortunately — labor law is a uniquely federal issue with only a few carve-outs for states to mull. Thankfully, federal legislators have an opportunity that state labor reformers do not with the Employee Rights Act. Co-authored by Senator Orrin Hatch, the ERA shares the same mission as right-to-work: Make the workplace completely fair and democratic for all employees nationwide.                                                                                          

Some of the ERA’s provisions are already well-known. Political protection, which requires that union officials receive the explicit written consent from members before spending mandatory dues on political activities, is one.

The rationale behind political protection is simple: 43 percent of union households voted for the GOP in 2012, yet 91 percent of union money went to Democrats. This vast chasm between the union officials and their members shows that when it comes to politics, employees from the machine floor to the office are directly funding something they wouldn’t otherwise support.

Another key ERA element is the secret ballot. This would require that all unionization votes be conducted in the same manner as elections for public office—with secrecy and anonymity. If a secret ballot is good enough to elect a president of the United States or the president of a labor union, then it’s good enough for union certification as well.

The same holds true for labor strikes, which can currently be declared by some union leaders without consulting members. A guaranteed secret ballot vote may have even saved Hostess, where picketing union members never had a chance to vote by ballot on whether they wanted to be a part of their bosses’ ill-conceived walkout, which ultimately destroyed both the company and all 18,000 of its jobs.

And speaking of votes, the ERA also requires that unions stand for recertification via a guaranteed revote every several years. Today, fewer than ten percent of current union members voted in favor of the union that they are forced to pay dues to. Guaranteed recertification votes would allow union members, new and old, to give or withhold consent to their union on a regular basis. Such a requirement incentivizes union officials to show value to their members.

Union officials want nothing to do with any of these reforms. They’ve petitioned their allies in Congress to stop the ERA at any cost—and so far, they’ve succeeded.

This organized aversion to reform comes as no surprise. Like any deeply entrenched interest group, union officials know giving more power to their members necessarily dilutes their own power — a fact we also learned in Michigan’s battle for right-to-work.

Thankfully, union members aren’t of the same mind as their obstructionist bosses. A full 78 percent of union households support the ERA — as does nearly 80 percent of the general public. This demonstrates that there is broad public support — among Democrats, independents, Republicans and a vast majority of union members — to democratize the workplace and unshackle employees from antiquated union practices.

The recent reforms in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, along with the failed reforms in Ohio, are a key part of this fight, but they aren’t enough. America’s employees need more, and that can only come from Congress. The reforms in the Employee Rights Act would be a good place to start.

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