Labor board stacks the deck for unions

The Obama administration spent most of 2013 reeling from scandal, after various federal agencies, most noticeably the National Security Agency, were found violating the privacy of innocent Americans.

Although the White House continually professed a mixture of ignorance, outrage and resolution to make changes, 2014 has started on the same note, with another federal board deciding that personal email addresses and phone numbers aren’t all that personal anymore.

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The National Labor Relations Board, a five-member commission appointed by the president, recently resurrected a controversial rule that would provide the private phone numbers and email addresses of workers to union organizers. As part of a broader push to make it easier and quicker for unions to entrench themselves in workplaces, this proposal — which was struck down by a court in 2012 — violates the privacy of employees and shifts communicative power from the individual to the union.

The present rules governing union organizing protect the rights of individual workers, unions, employers and opponents of unionization by allowing both sides ample time to organize and make cases to employees before a secret-ballot election. The NLRB’s proposal would upset this equilibrium in several ways, most jarringly by allowing union officials to make unsolicited, after-hours calls to employees, creating a greater potential for coercion and intimidation. In fact, a survey found that 82 percent of union households would support a law allowing employees to opt out of having their personal information shared.

As disturbing as this mass distribution of private data may be, the proposed rule would also egregiously shift the election process in favor of union organizers, greatly restricting the time available to workers who oppose unionization to make their case to their colleagues. The present system includes a series of triggers during the organization process, with set periods of time between filing for election and the actual casting of ballots.

By eliminating this system in favor of quick “ambush elections,” the new rule undercuts the rights of workers in opposition to unionization, who are already at an organizational and financial disadvantage to unions. The rule would also turn the election litigation process upside-down, allowing elections to proceed even if viable legal challenges are made to certain employees’ eligibility to vote. At each turn, the rule seems specifically designed to help labor organizers railroad union votes through over a weakened and splintered opposition.

These changes, which invade privacy and throw a well-reasoned process into turmoil, aren’t intended to be just or sensible, but to provide unions with an unmerited advantage in organizing. Long the fulcrum of Democratic politics, labor is mired in a long decline, with the percentage of workers belonging to a union nearly halved over the past 30 years. But the rights of workers are paramount to the relevance of the labor movement, and Washington should instead be focusing on legislation that protects the privacy of employees, similar to the Employee Rights Act (S. 1712) introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), which, among other provisions, would allow workers to opt out of having their personal information shared with union organizers.

Unfortunately, the NLRB seems to have the opposite priorities in mind. Its latest proposal — authorized by a party-line, 3-2 vote on the board — amounts to no more than a desperate attempt to bail out a sinking ship.

Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.