Time to End “One and Done” Workplace Elections

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

By Tom Price and James Sherk

This November, millions of Americans will exercise their right to vote and choose who will represent them. Speaking of choice and elections… did you know that only six percent of current unionized private sector workers voted for the union that represents them?

That’s right, 94 percent of these workers have never had a say in who speaks for them at the workplace, according to an analysis by the Heritage Foundation.

Congress never intended labor law to work this way. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects workers’ “designation of representatives of their own choosing.” The Act allows workers to select a union (or not, if they prefer) through a secret ballot election. Congress meant these elections to hold unions accountable to its members.Nonetheless, just a tiny fraction of today’s unionized workers have ever voted on unionizing their company, or on which union would represent them.

A major reason for this is the NLRA does not require unions to periodically stand for re-election. Unions have no fixed term of office; they continue as representatives indefinitely. New workers get the representative previous employees chose. Most union members inherited representation this way.

Theoretically union members can request decertification votes – the union equivalent of recall elections. In practice National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) procedures make requesting these votes quite difficult. As a result, they rarely occur. Last year, fewer than 10,000 of the 8 million workers organized under the NLRA voted in a decertification election. Unions lost most of those votes, but the remaining unionized workers never got a vote.

Moreover, unions frequently organize workers without an election. The NLRA permits companies to recognize unions without a secret ballot election. Many unions now try to pressure companies into accepting this. They wage negative PR campaigns intended to hurt non-union companies’ sales. Many companies conclude that forgoing an election is less painful than enduring the “corporate campaign.” Workers at those firms get union representation without ever voting for it.

To correct this, 30 members of the House and I (Congressman Price) have introduced the Employee Rights Act (ERA) – a set of solutions to hold unions more democratically accountable to their members. This legislation would give very basic protections to individuals who wish to preserve a more autonomous relationship with their employer. It requires private sector unions to stand for re-election once a majority of workers have turned over since the last vote. This would put an end to inherited representatives.

Employees who work for unionized companies would get to decide if they want to keep their union, switch to a different union, or forgo general representation entirely. The law would no longer bind current workers to decisions their grandparents made.

The ERA also guarantees private sector workers a secret ballot vote before a union can represent them. This would ensure that newly unionized workers actually want union representation. Unions typically try to bypass elections when they think they would lose a secret ballot vote. As one United Food and Commercial Workers union organizing guide explained, “One of the concerns organizers might have about waging economic war on an unorganized company is that it might turn employees against the union. I look at it this way: If you had massive employee support, you probably would be conducting a traditional organizing campaign.”

The ERA further prevents unions from interfering with workers’ right to call for a decertification election. Many unions pressure or harass workers who request a decertification vote. Just as the NLRA makes it illegal for companies to coerce workers trying to join a union, the law should make it illegal for unions to interfere with workers trying to leave a union.

The choice about whether or not to belong to a union should rest with workers, not unions or corporations. Both sides have the right to inform and persuade, but neither should have the ability to intimidate or harass.

Your right to have a say in who represents you in the workplace is as fundamental as your right to determine who represents you in Washington. The Employee Rights Act would ensure workers’ voices are heard.

Rep. Tom Price, M.D., represents Georgia’s 6th District and has served in the House since 2005. He chairs the Budget Committee. James Sherk is a senior fellow specializing in labor economics for The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis.