It's time for Congress to bring labor laws into the 21st century

It's time for Congress to bring labor laws into the 21st century
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America is drastically different than it was in the 1940s, but there’s one thing that has remained largely the same — federal labor laws. The last time Congress passed major labor law reform was the Taft-Hartley Act over 70 years ago.

All that changed with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME.  The justices ruled that public employees cannot be forced to pay fees to unions against their will, and unions can no longer automatically deduct dues without affirmative consent from workers.

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The decision is a major change to our labor laws, one that will empower American public employees. Congress can build on this decision by bringing federal labor laws into the 21st century for private sector workers — and it can start by passing the Employee Rights Act.

 

In the 80 years since the National Labor Relations Act was enacted, unions have become increasingly out of touch with their rank-and-file members. Union leadership is often more focused on political activism than representing workers, even if the members whose dues are paying their salaries disagree with the causes and candidates their unions are supporting.

During the 2016 election cycle, 88 percent of union spending on politics supported Democratic candidates, even though 43 percent of union households supported the Republican for president.

Because of this disconnect, workers are seeing unions as less and less worthwhile. Membership rates are roughly half of what they were in 1983, with just 11 percent of the workforce belonging to a union last year. Union membership is especially undesirable to the next generation of Americans. A mere 4.7 percent of workers between the ages of 16 and 24 were union members as of 2017.

One of the biggest reasons for this disconnect is that union members have few ways to hold their leadership accountable. Union representation is often inherited rather than chosen—while they are given the opportunity to vote on their union representatives, 94 percent of workers represented by a union between 1973 and 2015 never voted for the actual union itself to represent them. They either voted “no,” or, more commonly, took a job at a company where the union has been in place for years or even decades.

The Employee Rights Act puts power back in workers' hands by giving them a powerful accountability tool: union recertification. Under the ERA, workers would have the opportunity to decide if they want to keep being represented by their current union. Elections would be federally supervised and ballots would be secret, allowing workers to vote without fear of harassment or intimidation. Unions would have to receive support from the majority of all workers in the bargaining unit to ensure a true majority of support.

The bill would also require unions to receive opt-in permission from workers before using his or her dues for purposes other than collective bargaining. This is particularly important because unions have sent over $1.3 billion in dues to politically-motivated groups since 2010.

Among other changes, the bill would give workers the right to opt out of having their personal information shared with a union and would close the loophole that currently allows them use to threats or even violence as a means of coercion as long as they are carrying out “legitimate union business.”

That loophole is why members of the Teamsters union were acquitted despite threatening physical violence and hurling racist and sexist insults at Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi in Boston last year.

The good news for Congress is that the American people overwhelmingly support the principles in the ERA. More than 7 in 10 union households and 8 in 10 non-union households support union recertification. Eighty-eight percent of union households and 92 percent of nonunion households support criminalizing union threats. The numbers are similarly overwhelming among union households in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and among Hispanic, Democrat, and Independent households nationally. 

Passing this legislation wouldn’t just be a popular accomplishment for Congress, it would also be a victory for American workers. If lawmakers are serious about improving the lives of millions of Americans and scoring an important political victory, they should pass the Employee Rights Act as soon as possible.

Akash Chougule is director of policy at Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting limited government.