Encourage Union Voting, Workers’ Choice

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

By Mike Shirkey

Over three years ago, Michigan took a big step towards “labor freedom” by passing Right To Work. This provided potential union members the ability to exercise their power of choice to decide which organizations they wanted to join, applying free market principles where unions compete to earn their membership, both with employees and amongst other unions.

Despite those who predicted such choice would be bad for unions and workers, union membership has not suffered, jobs in Michigan have increased, and wages have gone up. There are however additional opportunities to better protect worker choice at the national level. Current federal labor law, much of which hasn’t been changed since 1947, allows for outdated bureaucratic rules that still leave employees vulnerable.

The Employee Rights Act (ERA), proposed federal legislation introduced by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Congressman Tom Price (R-GA), would help change that and offers greater protections for workers. When a labor union fails to support employees’ interests, it hurts both Michigan workers and businesses. Necessary reforms at the federal level will ensure current employees have a choice in representation and assurance of protected ballot elections that preserve their privacy. Archaic obstacles that impede active choice should be removed.

As an example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Labor Relations Board, only 7 percent of currently unionized employees have ever voted for their union. Recertification hardly ever occurs, even if the initial election was decades in the past. As a result it’s nearly impossible to change representation.

But active competition amongst unions is a good thing, and employees should always have choices on whether to belong to a particular union or not. Instituting periodic, private ballot elections will let current employees actively decide if they want to continue their representation, rather than being forced to rely on the decisions of past workers who have long since retired.

Beyond periodic votes, Michigan workers also deserve protected ballot union elections. The proposed ERA would protect employees’ democratic right to a federally supervised, private, paper ballot election when voting on whether or not to form or continue a particular union. We all vote this way when we elect public officials to represent us, and it only makes sense we allow for the same thing when it comes to union representation.

Current law also mandates that employers turn over all of their employees’ personal information to potential unions within seven days of the ordering of a union formation election. It’s no surprise this has resulted in employees reporting unwelcome or intimidating visits from union representatives at their homes and being pressured to vote a certain way.

We need the ERA to update labor laws so they’re working to balance and protect our current workforce – not just labor unions. While the proposed law faces an uncertain future under President Obama, it’s too vital of an issue to ignore.

Simply stated, unions and employees both benefit when workers are as free to make their choice as unions are to make their case. Whether we work for a unionized company or not, most would agree those are the types of choices we should all be allowed to make, and the reason why the passage of the ERA is so important.

State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, represents Branch, Hillsdale and Jackson counties in Michigan.