Employee Rights Act Pushes Democrats into a Policy Box Canyon

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

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

In old Western movies, the climax often took place in a “box canyon.” Some gang was lured into a trap where the high stone walls left no good exit or place to hide. Rifles (with unlimited ammunition) and the ability to gain the high ground dictated how the movie ended.

In the public policy arena, I’ve watched liberals succeed by similarly boxing in their conservative adversaries. We see liberals wanting higher guaranteed salaries (a $30,000 minimum wage) and taxpayer subsidized housing for families with six-figure incomes. These are sold as moral “high ground” ideas and designed to box in conservatives by having them looking cheap or insensitive.

Conservatives rarely start these policy fights. Typically, they wait until the firing starts and then try to prevail. But taking the fight to the enemy is a more effective and efficient path to policy victories. Early engagement and positioning provides the advantage in the shootout.

One of the clearest examples of this is in the field of labor law. Historically, Republicans have tried to defeat the latest wage mandate or liberalized unionization rule flacked by Democrats, who seem to care less about helping employees than they do about appeasing their union friends and financiers.

Rather than coming out with their own proposals to help employees in the workplace, Republicans have largely sat on the sidelines while the Democrats have run the table on these issues.

Until now. Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Tom Price have recently introduced the Employee Rights Act. This bill updates mid-­20th century labor law for the 21st century. It offers several basic reforms that would increase workplace democracy and employee power.

The ERA finally forces the Democrats into the unenviable position of playing defense. It forces them to deny worker rights. And when you consider how uncontroversial and beneficial the ERA reforms would be for employees, playing defense is politically very difficult.

One provision of the ERA simply criminalizes union violence, something that the 1935 Wagner Act tacitly allows. Another provision allows employees a guaranteed right to a secret-ballot vote whenever there is an attempt to unionize their workplace.

The ERA also guarantees a re-vote after substantial workforce turnover to ensure that the union still has majority support. Given that less than 10 percent of current union members have actually voted for their union, this needed reform will increase workplace democracy.

According to 2014 election exit polling, 38 percent of voters from union households supported a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives. Accordingly, a third provision requires unions to get permission from their members before using their dues to fund left­-leaning union political causes. Unionized employees should not be required to support candidates and missions they don’t believe in as a requirement of keeping their job.

In other words, the ERA is pretty uncontroversial stuff. For these reasons, it has enormously broad-­based appeal. The eight measures poll near 80 percent approval from the American public and are equally supported by union and nonunion households.

In the last Congress, the ERA was cosponsored by more than 130 representatives and senators. Not one of them had a “D” after his or her name. Apparently, it takes a bold Democrat to vote in favor of criminalizing violence, guaranteeing secret ballot elections, and allowing individual control of political giving.

That’s not to say that Big Labor and its sycophants are not without a response to the ERA. They claim it is an attack on the unions that “brought you the weekend” or “the eight hour workday.” But even conceding such vacuous responses, the ERA does not attack collective bargaining or mandatory dues in union shops. It doesn’t attack pensions, wages, or benefits. Or the weekend.

The ERA has pushed Democrats into a policy box canyon where they can’t run or hide. When they try to shoot their way out of supporting this popular policy, the public will recognize who’s wearing the black hats.