A Union Card Shouldn’t Be an Heirloom

This op-ed column was originally published at WSJ.com

By Akash Chougule

Organized labor’s sales pitch to the American worker is simple: Unions give you a voice. But what if the opposite is true? What if labor unions silence their members—even on the crucial question of whether they want to be members?

The overwhelming majority of union members now find themselves in this situation. The heyday of union organization is long past—National Labor Relations Board data show a peak of 209,015 new workers voting to join a union in 1966—yet the workplaces that were organized decades ago are still covered by the same unions today. All or most of the workers who cast their votes for the union have since retired or left their jobs, replaced by people who have never had the chance to reaffirm—or reject—choices made by their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Their union representation is inherited rather than elected, because their unions have never had to stand for recertification.

This dearth of workplace democracy exists across the country, and it affects government unions and those in the private economy.

Consider several automotive and aviation companies. The United Auto Workers first organized General Motors and Chrysler in 1937, and Ford Motor Company in 1941. Nearly 80 years later, not a single one of those workers still clocks in for those companies. Yet current workers are still bound by their predecessors’ choice. The same is true at Boeing,which was unionized by the International Association of Machinists in 1936.

Public employment is no different, particularly in schools. The Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania reported in January that “only 25 long-serving educators out of more than 24,158 classroom teachers” in the state’s 20 largest school districts had the chance to vote for their unions’ certification.

The Heritage Foundation reached a similar conclusion after looking at public schools in Florida, New York, Michigan, Kansas, New Hampshire and South Dakota. The highest percentage the foundation could find of workers who had voted on union certification was between 9% and 12%—and that was only in three school districts in South Dakota and Michigan. Only 1% of teachers voted for their unions in the largest districts in Florida. Less than 1% did so in New York City. In the public-school districts for Kansas City, Detroit and many others, not a single current teacher had a say in union representation.

These aren’t statistical outliers. Only 7.36% of unionized workers voted for their unions, according to National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the Center for Union Facts. This number may have fallen even further, given the decline in successful unionization campaigns and the retirement of older union members. In fact, the study found that only 91 workers who voted for a union in 1964—out of the 209,776 votes cast in successful unionization drives that year—remained with their employer in 2010.

Unions argue that current workers tacitly support this regime by taking the job to begin with or by periodically voting on new contracts. In recent years, however, several states have given workers in private and public unions the freedom to leave. They’ve fled in droves.

Take Wisconsin, the state where public-employee unions were born. Act 10 passed in 2011 and made the state the first to end the problem of inherited representation. The law, which requires local and state-government unions to hold annual recertification elections, prompted a swift exodus.

Between 2013 and 2014, 103 unions chose not to seek recertification, likely because they knew they would lose. Of the remaining 305 unions, 25 lost their recertification election, according to the MacIver Institute. For the state’s largest teachers union, roughly half of local affiliates lost their certification. This helps explain why Wisconsin’s union membership plummeted to 223,000 in 2015 from 339,000 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

States that pass right-to-work laws—which make union membership and dues optional for government employees and private-economy workers—have also seen mass departures from unions. West Virginia became the 26th right-to-work state in February. As existing union contracts expire, and more states enact right to work, the declines will likely continue.

Organized labor fought these reforms tooth and nail, and they’re sure to fight anything similar at either the federal or state level. That includes the recently introduced Employee Rights Act, a congressional bill that would require periodic recertification for all unions. Yet the evidence is clear that absent meaningful accountability, unions don’t necessarily speak for the American worker.

The union members of 30, 50 or even 80 years ago had their say. Today’s union members should have theirs, too.

Akash Chougule is director of policy at Americans for Prosperity.