Employee Rights Act Makes Union Bosses Listen to Workers

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

By Trey Kovacs

President of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka recently delivered a heap of advice on “compromise” in a commencement speech to Penn State Fayette Graduates. His college experience had taught him to “be open to other points of view” and that “listening is more than pausing until it’s your turn to talk. It actually requires hearing what the other person is saying.”

It is time for Mr. Trumka to take his own advice to heart, because a majority of voters feel that union leadership is out of touch with rank-and-file members, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. Clearly, people do not feel like Big Labor is listening to the voices of workers.

Political contributions illustrate that disconnect. The AFL-CIO and other unions do not seem to be listening to the membership when it comes to political contributions. In 2016 election cycle, labor unions sent 88 percent of their huge war chest to Democrats. That would be fine if 88 percent, or somewhere near that figure, supported a progressive agenda, but that is just not the case. Exit polls from the 2016 campaign show 43 percent of union households voted Republican.

While it may not be possible to motivate union bosses to listen to union members, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., introduced legislation that would go far in amplifying the voices of workers. Roe’s Employee Rights Act would be the first major reform to the National Labor Relations Act, the law governing private-sector labor relations, since 1974. An update is needed desperately. When workers vote on whether or not to form a union they are not guaranteed a vote via secret ballot. Currently, unions can enter into backroom deals with employers to take away workers’ right to a secret-ballot election. Unions routinely bully employers into signing away their employees’ rights with a combination of legal, political, and public-relations attacks to brow-beat a company on union demands. The bad alternative to a secret-ballot election is known as “card-check,” where unions confront workers and use deception and intimidation to coerce employees to sign a card in favor of unionization.

Roe’s proposed law would change this. It would guarantee workers a secret-ballot election. Of course, union bosses would already know that workers want to vote in privacy if they listened to workers. A poll conducted by the Center for Union Facts shows 79 percent of union households strongly or somewhat support secret-ballot elections.

Another way the ERA gives workers more of a say in their workplace is by instituting union recertification elections. Most unions organized workplaces decades ago, when most of the current workers did not work there, which means current workers never got to vote on the union that represents them. Only seven percent of unionized workers actually voted on the union that currently represents them, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Labor Relations Board.

Workers should not inherit unions. They should voluntarily select a union because it offers a valuable service. The Employee Rights Act would fix this problem by requiring a secret-ballot election every few years or when the workforce has turned over by more than 50 percent since the last election, which ensures the union still represents the interests of workers.

It also would protect employee privacy in another important way. A 2015 regulation finalized by the National Labor Relations Board compels employers to provide employees’ contact information to union organizers prior to a union election, including personal cell-phone numbers, email addresses and work schedules — without an opt-out provision for those who prefer not to share their personal data. The act would counter that injustice by giving employees the right to opt out of sharing their private information with labor unions. It’s a common-sense proposal. Workers should be able to keep their information private and out of the hands of a third party that does not represent them.

If union bosses refuse to listen to workers who pay their salaries, then it is critical that Congress pass the Employee Rights Act to protect workers’ rights. The law would ensure that workers receive a fair shake at the workplace. That should be a bi-partisan priority.

Trey Kovacs is a policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.