Senate and House Republicans, Please Set American Workers Free

This op-ed column was originally published at

By Akash Chougule

With the Republicans’ seven-year-long promise to repeal Obamacare looking precarious at best, Congress is again headed home for an August recess mired in gridlock. Despite some notable accomplishments — confirmation of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch and a series of regulatory reforms foremost among them — betting the house on health care remains risky for a party that needs to turn out its base in 2018. Republicans need to pursue multiple avenues, and outside of taxes, none is more promising or important than labor reform.

Since the tea-party wave of 2010 that swept in massive GOP statehouse majorities, no issue has created more fervor-turned-success than labor reform. First came Governor Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining reforms in Wisconsin, followed by six states in six years enacting right-to-work laws — more than had done so in the previous 50 years combined.

Now, Congress has the opportunity to reignite that energy and score a massive win for American workers with the Employee Rights Act, which could be the first major update to federal labor law in 70 years. It would return power from union leadership to individual workers — many of whom surprised the media elite by voting Republican last year, catapulting Donald Trump to the White House.

Trump has made no secret of his desire to deliver wins for those who got him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Employee Rights Act would be a big one. Exit polls show that 43 percent of union workers voted for Trump, after unions sent more than $500 million of their dues to left-wing organizations over the last four years. Instead of being spent on collective bargaining, they paid to advance agendas that many workers oppose, including progressive social-issue crusades and anti-fossil-fuel causes.

The Employee Rights Act would require unions to receive opt-in permission from workers to spend their dues on anything other than collective bargaining, instead of making workers endure a lengthy and tiresome process to opt out of being forced to subsidize unwanted political speech.

The bill would also ensure that every worker has a voice by requiring unions to stand for reelection every time the workforce has turned over by at least 50 percent at the end of a collective-bargaining agreement. To be certified or recertified, a union would have to receive support from a majority of all workers in the bargaining unit, rather than just a majority of those who vote in a low-turnout election.

Recertification elections are crucial because 94 percent of workers represented by a union today have never actually voted for the union that represents them. They either voted against the union or simply inherited one that was voted in years — often decades — earlier. For example, the United Auto Workers unionized the Ford plant in Detroit in 1941. Not a single worker who voted for the UAW is still on the assembly line at Ford, and yet those currently working for the company have no choice but to accept UAW representation.

Importantly, the bill would require that union elections take place by secret ballot. Unions could no longer organize workers by publicly intimidating them in “card check” campaigns.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s version of the bill in the last Congress drew 137 House co-sponsors — well over half the Republican caucus — and Orrin Hatch’s Senate version had 32 co-sponsors, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Representative Phil Roe’s identical reintroduction this year garnered support from nearly 50 conservative organizations from across the country on a coalition letter circulated by Americans for Prosperity, and Heritage Action is key-voting co-sponsorship of the bill, H.R. 2723, on its congressional scorecard.

The Employee Rights Act would excite a hungry conservative base and demonstrate real progress for working-class voters who pulled the lever for Trump. The ten Senate Democrats up for reelection in states Trump won — almost all of them right-to-work states with low rates of unionization — will be in a tight spot trying to appease the unions that fund their campaigns while appealing for votes from constituents who are clearly not fond of organized labor.

That’s the kind of no-lose proposition that Trump, McConnell, and House speaker Paul Ryan need now more than ever.

Akash Chougule is the director of policy at Americans for Prosperity.