The Employee Rights Act Goes to a Hearing

This op-ed column was originally published at

Luka Ladan, CUF Communications Director

The House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions recently held a hearing on the Employee Rights Act (ERA) for the first time ever. It is the most significant development with the ERA—the most substantive update to American labor law since the 1940s—since its introduction in 2011.

One of the witnesses was Karen Cox, a blue-collar employee from Illinois who was forced to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU) in 2012. She was never given the chance to vote yes or no. RWDSU organizers pressured Karen and her coworkers into publicly signing authorization cards to recognize the union—without a secret ballot vote. When Karen tried to decertify the union, the RWDSU threatened her.

This is all too common in union America. Less than 10 percent of union members voted for the union currently “representing” them. According to the most recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) data, roughly 40 percent of union recognitions are achieved with card signatures instead of private votes. Without going after collective bargaining, the ERA democratizes the union election process. As you might imagine, the bill’s secret ballot provision enjoys 80 percent approval among union household voters.

So how are union elites reacting? With outrage! At the hearing, Jody Calemine, general counsel for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), testified that he’s never seen “a bill as extreme, provocative, anti-union and anti-worker as the Employee Rights Act.” The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) subsequently claimed that the ERA is “designed to empower billionaires and CEOs, not working people.” The union-funded Center for American Progress even suggested that the legislation is an example of “voter suppression.”

Really? Secret ballot elections suppress voters? If that’s the case, then our entire democracy needs rethinking. And if the ERA is the most “anti-union” piece of legislation in human history, why would 80 percent of union household voters support it?

The only explanation is a growing disconnect between union leadership and members. Only 25 percent of current and former union members view union leadership favorably. The majority of employees believe that a union’s internal power structure favors leadership instead of the members paying for the union’s survival.

A common gripe among union elites and their allies is the ERA’s majority vote provision. This dictates that a union must win a majority of all eligible employees—not just those who voted, as it currently stands—before entering a workplace. Shortly after the ERA’s reintroduction, the union-backed Economic Policy Institute (EcPI) criticized the provision, arguing that congressional candidates aren’t even held to the same standard.

It’s a red herring. The only similarity between a congressional election and a union election is that there are counted votes. Even if you don’t vote for a member of Congress, the winning candidate cannot deduct dues from your paycheck. They cannot have you fired if you don’t pay. They cannot force you to go on strike, fine you for breaking union rules, or deny you a job promotion due to lack of seniority. Union officials can do all of the above.

Furthermore, they—unlike members of Congress—do not stand for a scheduled re-vote every two years. Only in unique circumstances does union leadership face that second vote.

And if congressional elections—where secret ballot votes are guaranteed—are indeed the standard, then union elites should support a private vote. But they don’t. As Joe Hansen, the former president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, once lamented about employees voting in private, “We can’t win that way anymore.”

Win or not, union members are fed up with their representatives making false equivalences—at the expense of employee rights. 

The next step for the ERA is a hearing before the full House Education and Workforce Committee, which will decide whether to put secret ballots to a floor vote. Karen Cox and most of working America are saying “Godspeed.”