Union Bosses: Our Permanent Incumbents

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

By Mark Mix

Veteran officeholders are notoriously hard to unseat, but even our longest-serving politicians have to face the voters every few years in regularly scheduled elections. Incumbent union bosses are another story. Union bosses have no fixed term in office, and they can remain in place until workers take the initiative to get rid of them. In workplaces across the country, union officials have become skilled at avoiding, delaying, or even nullifying employee decertification drives aimed at evicting them from the workplace. They are aided and abetted by President Obama’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) bureaucrats, who are rushing headlong to get unions in power and keep them in power at all costs.

Under federal law, a union gains power through either an election or “voluntary recognition,” a process in which an employer accepts the union based on a so-called “card check.” Similarly, current law allows unions to be removed via either an employee election or an employer’s “withdrawal of recognition” once it receives proof that a majority of employees no longer support the union.

NLRB general counsel Richard Griffin wants to make things even tougher for employees hoping to get rid of entrenched unions. In a recent memorandum, Griffin announced that he will act to prevent unions from being removed even in cases where the employer receives solid evidence that a majority of employees are against union representation. Employees’ only way out would be via an NLRB-certified election, which union officials and their bureaucrat friends know how to delay or rig.

Griffin’s gambit would make it much more difficult for workers to eject an unwanted union. It also shows the hypocrisy of the NLRB’s well-documented enthusiasm for “card check,” the dubious organizing method that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Card-check drives allow union operatives to take over a workplace if they collect enough employee signatures, even if workers were badgered, harassed, or misled into signing on the dotted line. Under Griffin’s plan, union organizers will continue to gain power via such “card checks,” but cannot be removed in the same way, by even large majorities of employees who do not want union representation.

The contrast between the NLRB’s solicitous approach to union organizers and its mistrustful treatment of employees seeking to remove unwanted unions could not be more glaring. Employee decertification petitions, which are collected by off-the-clock workers with little experience navigating the federal labor bureaucracy and cannot legally be backed by management, are suddenly suspect. But the board has no qualms about “card check” unionization drives, which are spearheaded by professional union organizers and notoriously prone to abuse and pressure tactics. Often these drives are backed by “neutral” employers, who can be browbeaten into supporting unionization through corporate pressure campaigns.

A recent case out of Chicago highlights the bureaucratic and legal roadblocks workers face when attempting to remove an unwanted union. Nearly three years ago, 16 out of 26 employees at an Arlington Metals facility in Franklin Park petitioned their employer to withdraw recognition from an unwanted United Steelworkers local. Instead of leaving gracefully, Steelworkers lawyers filed unfair-labor-practice charges with the NLRB, prompting the NLRB’s regional director to seek an injunction in federal court to overrule the employees’ petition and keep the union in power.

Twenty employees then signed on to a brief in support of their employer, speaking out against the union’s presence in their workplace. That number represents an overwhelming majority of workers in the bargaining unit, but the NLRB is still doing everything it can to protect the Steelworkers bosses’ privileged position. The NLRB even opposed allowing the employee to be heard in the case. Fortunately, a federal judge refused to order the return of the union, based largely on the employees’ overwhelming statements opposing it.

This case is far from an isolated incident. In fact, it’s more like standard operating procedure at the Obama NLRB. During a recent decertification drive in Oakland, Calif., the regional office initially rejected an employee petition to oust an unwanted Teamsters local on the questionable grounds that it wasn’t submitted in English and Spanish, a requirement that is totally unfounded in relevant case law or NLRB rules.

Even right-to-work states aren’t safe from the NLRB’s pro–Big Labor agenda. Perhaps the most egregious example of federal bureaucrats’ rigging the deck occurred in 2013–15 at a ball-bearing plant in Hamilton, Ala. Employees had to vote five times over a two-year period before the NLRB finally allowed them to remove an unwanted UAW local. One election was set aside because before the vote, an employee from one of the company’s non-union plants showed workers in Hamilton his pay stub, which accurately revealed that he received higher pay than was allowed under the union contract.

For workers across the country, the stakes in union decertification drives couldn’t be higher. In states that lack right-to-work laws, employees can be required to pay union dues even if they aren’t union members or actively oppose the union’s presence. Every time the NLRB overrules or delays an employee attempt to oust an unwanted union in a non-right-to-work state, the affected workers are stuck paying required dues to an organization they actively oppose.

The need for reform is particularly urgent because so many unions have overstayed their welcome or outlived their usefulness. Many unions were installed decades or even generations ago and remain in place through sheer inertia. According to one recent estimate, less than 8 percent of unionized employees actually voted for the union that is currently “representing” their workplace. A study out of Pennsylvania found that fewer than 600 of the state’s 105,000 unionized public-school teachers have even had the opportunity to vote in a union election.

How can we fix the NLRB’s broken decertification system? The rules and regulations that govern unionization don’t attract as many headlines as high-profile political fights, but in the long run, they can be just as consequential. Senators ought to pay closer attention to NLRB nominees and oppose those who place union-boss power ahead of individual workers’ rights.

More state right-to-work laws — or, better yet, a National Right to Work Act that gets rid of mandatory union dues entirely — would prevent workers from being forced to financially support a union they oppose. This would also remove the financial incentive for union bosses to fight tooth and nail to keep unwilling employees trapped in union ranks.

In addition, Congress should pass the Employee Rights Act, which mandates periodic recertification elections to ensure that unions don’t overstay their welcome through inertia or intimidation. Ultimately, Congress should strike at the root of the problem by eliminating government-imposed union monopoly bargaining, which forces non-union employees in unionized workplaces to work under union contracts.

Aided and abetted by the Obama administration’s labor bureaucrats, union officials have perfected the art of disabling and denying worker-led decertification drives. Although the Obama NLRB has done all it can to entrench unpopular union bosses, legislators have the final say over federal labor law. Congress should act now to end unions’ near-permanent incumbency and empower American workers to show unwanted union bosses the door.

Mark Mix is president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.