Government unions should respect employees, not intimidate them
2017 will go down in history as a year of national reckoning on workplace harassment. Beginning with The New York Times’ explosive revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, one powerful person after another has been exposed and rooted out of the workplace for behavior that is hostile, abusive, or otherwise inappropriate. The potential for bad publicity resulting from workplace harassment has been a wake-up call for most every company and organization.
But as it turns out, not everyone has gotten the memo. There is still at least one workplace where hostile behavior is not only tolerated, but aided by the rule of law: union shops. For some public sector labor unions, harassment is just another tool used to pressure employees to join their collective bargaining units. This is a sad departure from the rich history of unions helping advance worker rights and improving conditions for the American workforce. Some government unions at the state level have shown a diminishing trust in the value they offer to their own membership — they’ve resorted to coercion that forces workers’ allegiance instead of earning it.
This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court could issue a decision in Janus v. AFSCME that would invalidate forced union dues for public employees. Illinois public employee Mark Janus is suing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for the freedom to work without paying fees to the union just to keep his job. Should he win, nearly five million public employees in America will have their First Amendment rights expanded, allowing them to keep their entire paychecks without being forced to divert monthly fees to subsidize a union that may not be serving their interests.
Some policymakers and state lawmakers are taking preemptive measures to circumvent the impact of a court decision in favor of Janus. They estimate that worker freedom would be a blow to union finances. An estimated 20 percent of public employees may opt out of paying fees if given a choice, depriving many unions of $1,000 or more per person per year.
In state after state, policymakers are all too eager to carve out statutory protections for labor unions at the expense of worker rights. Not only are such actions premature and short-sighted, but they also reveal the disdain these governments and union leaderships have for American jurisprudence and the workers they claim to represent.
Consider what is happening in New Jersey. Lawmakers there advanced legislation earlier this month that strips away individual rights to privacy by requiring public employers to hand over to public labor unions the name, job title, worksite location, home address, work telephone number, date of hire, work email address, personal email address, and home and personal cell phone number of every single employee within 10 days of hiring. The employees themselves have no say in the matter under the new law.
The proposed law also makes it more difficult for employees to opt out of the union — much more difficult. It shrinks the “window” during which time employees can opt out of union membership to just 10 days per year, triggered by a worker’s employment anniversary. That means they have one shot a year to ensure that every piece of the paperwork is complete and delivered on time. But problems can occur in mail delivery, and a union may, as happened in Michigan after it passed a right-to-work law, change the relevant P.O. Box number.
And finally, the proposed law would give union organizers the right, even a mandate, to harass government workers on the job with information about union membership. Within 30 days of being hired, new employers will now be required to sit through a 30-minute pitch on the benefits of unionization presented by a union organizer.
It’s bad enough that workers can be pressured by unions during business hours at their place of work, but this new legislation gives labor unions carte blanche to harass employers around the clock — at home, after hours, and on weekends. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming days or weeks.
If the Supreme Court sides in favor of Janus and strikes down the practice of forced payments as a condition of public employment, organized labor will have a choice. Unions can either seek to become more inclusive and focus their energies on being responsive to employee needs, as many unions in right-to-work states have done successfully, or they can choose to double down on intimidation and coercion in an effort to force workers to remain in the fold.
Here’s hoping they choose the former. For if there’s a lesson to be learned from this past year, it’s that tolerance of intimidation and harassment in the workplace, aided by and personified in those with power, is rapidly fading. Whether or not Janus prevails, employees deserve respect from their union leadership and state policymakers — not the attitudes of legislative initiatives like the one in New Jersey. Such policies only substantiate the fears that the government is out of touch with the typical American worker.
Lindsay Boyd Killen is the vice president for strategic outreach and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and My Pay My Say, the Center’s national outreach and education effort to public employees with information impacting workplace freedom. Erica Jedynak is the New Jersey state director for Americans for Prosperity, a partner with My Pay My Say.