My view: A legislative fix for workplace inequality

By Richard Berman

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, April 25 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

If the president is truly interested in jump-starting a discussion on inequality, it’s not just wages that he should focus on in the workplace — it’s the employees who earn them.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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President Barack Obama and his supporters in Congress have made inequality an election-year focus. In particular, they’ve zeroed in on wage inequality and offered up a 40 percent hike in the federal minimum wage as a cure for the “disease.”

But if the president is truly interested in jump-starting a discussion on inequality, it’s not just wages that he should focus on in the workplace — it’s the employees who earn them. Fortunately, there’s a bill before Congress that puts employee rights front and center.

The Employee Rights Act, sponsored by Utah’s Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), currently has 27 co-sponsors in the Senate and 89 in the House. It is based on eight simple elements that increase employee protections against labor abuses by providing employees the means to hold their unions accountable. Representing the first substantive reform of federal labor law in over half a century, it’s time to provide some equality in power between employees and the unions that collect their dues.

Perhaps the most important provision of the ERA is what’s known as “paycheck protection.” This provision requires union officials to receive express written consent from individual members before spending their dues on political activities.

The rationale behind this reform is a simple and moral one: 43 percent of members of union households voted for the Republican Party in 2012, yet 91 percent of union money went to Democrats. In other words, hundreds of thousands of union members are forced to financially support political positions with which they themselves disagree — something Thomas Jefferson called “sinful and tyrannical.”

Secret ballot voting seems like common sense, but it’s antithetical to organized labor’s preferred strategy of so-called “card check” campaigns. Card check allows union organizers to confront employees in front of their co-workers and use peer pressure and outright intimidation to secure the necessary votes to unionize a workplace. Most organizing campaigns being pursued by unions today seek to avoid real elections altogether. The ERA puts an end to such schoolyard bully tactics.

The right to secret ballot voting is also extended to strike votes. Under many collective bargaining agreements, union leaders can declare a strike without first even consulting their members — the people whose jobs are actually on the line.

A perfect example of the need for this reform is Hostess, where in 2012, union members never were given the opportunity to vote on their now infamous strike. The resulting unrest forced the Twinkie-maker into bankruptcy, costing 18,000 jobs. Were union members given an opportunity to vote in private, knowing that their jobs were on the line, the outcome may well have been different.

The ERA additionally requires unions to stand for recertification on a regular basis. Today, it’s estimated that fewer than 10 percent of union members voted to join their union. By forcing unions to stand for re-election, much like politicians do, the ERA empowers union members to hold their unions accountable.

The president is fond of pointing to polls to justify his focus on wage inequality. Fortunately for him, the ERA has even better poll numbers than a minimum wage hike: Fully 80 percent of the general public supports the bill — including 78 percent of union households. Support is strong among Democrats, independents and Republicans to democratize the union-versus-employee relationship.

President Obama supports the minimum wage hike on the premise of empowering low-wage employees. It’s time he apply that premise more broadly and support the rights of all employees. For poll-following politicians, it’s a winner all around.

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, which operates EmployeeRightsAct.com.

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