Will Big Labor Dare to Listen to What its Members Want?

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

By Akash Chougule

The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in America, made headlines this week when it broke from past protocol and declined to invite any federal lawmakers to its quadrennial convention.

The decision comes as unions seek to display more political independence, following an election in which 43 percent of union households voted Republican for president, despite 88 percent of direct union political spending going to support Democrats.

As a spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, “Today’s political environment and the needs of our members demand a departure from business as usual.”

Clearly, labor leaders have recognized the massive disconnect with their membership, but it remains to be seen if they’ll actually create more responsive unions.

The proposals contained in the Employee Rights Act, reintroduced in Congress this year by Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would be a good first step toward more democratic unions.

The bill would require unions to: stand for periodic recertification elections to determine if workers wish to remain represented by that union; hold certification and recertification referendums by secret ballot instead of open “card-check” votes; and receive written permission from workers before spending their dues on anything other than collective bargaining, such as supporting organizations that engage in political advocacy.

According to 2015 polling by Opinion Research Corp., each of these provisions enjoys at least 71 percent support from union households. This year, ORC found similarly overwhelming support specifically among union households in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio — key industrial states that union-backed Hillary Clinton lost last year.

Nationwide, just 6 percent of union members have ever voted for the union that represents them, according to a 2016 Heritage Foundation report. The rest either voted against the union or, more commonly, inherited a union that was voted on years or even decades ago.

Recertification elections would allow workers to vote whether they wish to remain represented by that union, giving many workers a voice for the first time in their careers.

Secret-ballot elections would free workers from the harassment and intimidation that comes with card-check elections, in which workers must vote in front of a union organizer. Card-check is the preferred method of labor leaders and their political allies because it results in higher rates of unionization, but it deprives workers of a basic protection that all Americans are guaranteed when they vote for their own elected representatives.

Finally, a report this month from the Center for Union Facts revealed that unions sent nearly $765 million in workers’ dues from 2012 through 2016 to left-wing organizations, from Planned Parenthood to the Democratic Governors Association.

Recertification elections, secret ballots and paycheck protection would require unions to be more responsive and ensure workers aren’t forced to support causes they oppose.

Take, for example, Charlene Carter, who last month sued her ex-employer and union officials, alleging she’d been fired for criticizing her union and voicing pro-life views. Carter objected to her dues being used to send union leaders to the Washington, DC, “Women’s March,” which supported several causes she opposes.

Had the union’s participation in the Women’s March required her permission, this problem could’ve been avoided. Instead, Carter must now resort to suing the very organization that was supposed to represent her.

This summer, the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO said of his union’s members, “we were speaking too much at them, rather than having conversations with them.” Now the AFL-CIO has a chance to show workers they’re serious about giving them a voice. The Employee Rights Act would do that — and will test whether President Richard Trumka and other labor leaders are willing to give up their coercive status quo to save their unions.

Akash Chougule is director of policy at Americans for Prosperity.