GOP Debate a Chance to Address American Workers

This op-ed column was originally published at

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

Nearing the Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential candidates are setting their sights on labor policy. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton routinely rails against income inequality, vowing “to strengthen workers’ voices” and protect them from “exploitation.” Sen. Bernie Sanders recently introduced a labor-backed bill “(making) it easier for workers to join unions.”

This is no accident. By focusing on workplace issues, Democrats are appealing to the American electorate, 86 percent of whom consider the economy extremely or very important to their vote in the 2016 election. The worst thing that the Republican field can do is sit on the sidelines. For the more than 122 million Americans working full time (and millions of other part-timers), Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate spells an opportunity to hear how the candidates will change their working lives for the better.

The participants would be wise to tell them. Fortunately, there’s a popular piece of legislation in Congress — the Employee Rights Act — that gives the Republicans an ample sounding board. The bill, recently reintroduced to Congress by Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Tom Price, would update 1940s-era labor law for the 21st century with eight pro-employee provisions. And most of the candidates on stage support it, even if you haven’t heard it from them directly.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who is steadily climbing the polls, became a co-sponsor in late November. Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently took the lead in Iowa, has long endorsed the ERA’s labor reforms — which include a right to secret-ballot union elections and an employee privacy provision. The ERA would also allow union members — 40 percent of whom vote Republican — to opt out of funding their union’s political advocacy budget, $140 million of which supports pro-Democrat consulting firms, left-wing think tanks, and other like-minded groups.

As it stands, union members are forced to finance political advocacy expenditures via mandatory dues — even when it contradicts their own political beliefs. Requiring an opt-in process would protect these employees’ voices in the workplace — and protect their pocketbooks from politically motivated union bosses.

This injustice is worthy material for a Republican debate expected to devote serious time to the economy. By referencing the ERA, candidates such as Rubio and Cruz have the opportunity to champion the fight of working Americans and flex their policy muscles.

Recent polls suggest voters are receptive. Almost 70 percent of Americans believe the country’s on the wrong track. Advocating this legislation would provide a tangible way forward.

More importantly, most of the ERA’s provisions are supported by more than 8 in 10 Americans. The employee privacy provision, for instance, enjoys 82 percent approval. Political paycheck protection clocks in at 83 percent. And the federal criminalization of union violence, an ERA proposal ensuring workplace safety, has support from 90 percent of Americans.

Until now, Republicans have let their political rivals monopolize the debate over labor policy with vague allusions to “income inequality” — when specific reforms are right in their wheelhouse. It’s about time they realize it.