Rise in Union Membership Shows Need for Employee Rights

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

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

Ambush elections. Voting without a secret ballot. The disclosure of personal information to aggressive campaigners. That’s the new story of unionization votes in America, and it’s not fair to employees.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that total union membership rose by 200,000 employees nationwide in 2015. And while the national union rate of 11.1 percent of employees remained unchanged, private-sector employees were more likely to be unionized in 2015 than in 2014.

Here’s the backstory. In December of last year, the National Labor Relations Board, stacked with Obama administration appointees, changed the rules for union elections to make the job easier for unions. The NLRB shortened the election campaign period and required employers to hand over almost any private contact information they have for their employees to union organizers. The result has been an increase in the union win rate in these elections — organizers now win 69 percent of elections (up from 66 percent) after the rule, according to preliminary results from 2015 after the rule went into effect.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez has indicated that these changes are just the beginning of an expansive pro-union agenda of “exploring avenues for strengthening the right to organize.”

The latest statistics on union membership showed a troubling development in the decades-long trend of declining unionization. It’s not as though Americans’ views on union have changed drastically: In Pew Research polling, unions’ favorability fell two points from 2013 to 2015. Rather, the data suggest that NLRB efforts to unilaterally change labor laws might be paying off for union bosses. And Labor Secretary Perez is just getting started.

It demonstrates the need for fundamental reform to American labor laws, which haven’t been substantially updated since 1947. The change in union membership since then — which has seen unions hit a peak and decline into a deep valley — demands real and lasting change ensured by the federal government.

Currently, unions can be established without a private, secret-ballot vote by agreement between union organizers and management. These “card checks” are often conducted amid atmospheres of public intimidation, and employees are often not aware that signing the card is not a petition for a vote but instead a “vote” for the union. A bill in Congress called the Employee Rights Act would end this confusion by requiring a government-supervised secret-ballot vote to establish a union. It would also allow employees to opt out of having their personal contact information handed over to union organizers — commonplace under current labor law.

The story of unions today is “one man, one vote, one time.” Less than ten percent of employees currently unionized ever voted in favor of their union, despite substantial changes in the workplace and American economy writ large. To fix this problem, the ERA would guarantee periodic recertification elections which allow employees to either support or reject the union agenda.

Both secret-ballot elections and guaranteed recertification votes have substantial support: 80 percent of Americans (including union households) believe in these reforms. But Big Labor’s special-interest politics pose a roadblock: Over the past three years, unions gave almost $420 million to political groups, with 99 percent of that money going to Democrats and the Left — even though 40 percent of union household members consistently voted Republican.

It goes to show two things: Union bosses have lost touch with their members, and Congress needs to pass the ERA.