Striking a Blow for the Good of the Workers

This op-ed column was originally published at

By Orrin Hatch

Decades before my election to the United States Senate, I was a metal lather in Pittsburgh, working long hours to support a struggling family. Like my father before me, I joined a union that promised to protect my basic rights as an employee. Such labor unions have fought for improved working conditions throughout our nation’s history.

Today, unfortunately, labor unions too often fall short of representing the true interests of their membership, so I have introduced in Congress the Employee Rights Act to restore the rights of the American worker and empower hardworking individuals with greater choice in the workplace. This bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Tom Price in the House, would allow workers a greater role in how their union represents them.

It seems like common sense that American workers should be able to decide how to spend their hard-earned paychecks. But current labor law allows unions to deduct millions of dollars every year from employee paychecks to fund political causes that many of their members oppose. In the last election, nearly 40 percent of union members voted for Republicans, yet almost 90 percent of union-sponsored political contributions went to Democrats. Instead of being compelled to help fund causes they don’t support, workers should be able to make that choice for themselves.

The Employee Rights Act puts a stop to this coercive practice. My bill preserves free speech and protects family paychecks by requiring unions to obtain explicit permission from members before using union dues for political purposes or any other non-bargaining activity. Workers deserve the right to determine where their money is spent. They should never have to support a political cause or activity that they haven’t chosen for themselves.

In addition to protecting individual workers’ speech, this bill also provides crucial privacy protections. Union organizers are currently permitted to collect phone numbers and home addresses of employees at the start of an organizing campaign. In the past, some organizers have used this information to visit workers in their homes. While employees may opt out of sharing information, it is far better if workers are able to decide for themselves whether they want such information shared and with whom. The Employee Rights Act protects worker privacy by empowering them to choose whether and when to share personal information with union organizers, rather than making sharing the default option.

To address everyday union members’ lack of meaningful control of their union leadership, this bill also seeks to make unions more democratic. Today’s unions can collect dues and make rules with virtually no say from their members. In fact, a majority of today’s workers never even chose their unions; they were forced to accept current union representation as a condition of being hired. Less than 7 percent of unionized employees actually voted for the union in their workplace. Again, it seems like common sense that workers should be free to make that choice themselves.

We must update these outdated laws to ensure that workers have the right to decide whether they want to be represented by their current union. My bill grants individuals that right by requiring unions to be re-certified when employee turnover exceeds 50 percent since the last election. It also makes these elections more democratic by requiring unions to be elected by a majority of employees through a secret ballot election, rather than through card check.

My bill also requires unions to make decisions to strike by secret ballot. It further protects workers by criminalizing union threats and acts of violence at the federal level and penalizes union coercion and unethical tactics designed to pressure employees. And it expands workers rights by negating a recent rule that unfairly expedites union elections and rushes employees through the unionization process without allowing for reasonable time to collect information from all sides.

Our nation must work to promote the success of American workers and businesses in today’s global economy. The Employee Rights Act does just that by bringing our labor laws into the 21st century, creating choice and opportunity in the workplace, and protecting our nation’s greatest resource — the American worker. Congress should stand for these common-sense reforms that protect employees’ rights and paychecks by supporting this critical bill.

Orrin G. Hatch is President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate.