Hand-me-down unions don’t work for current workers

Greg Nash

The recent issue over a potential federal government shutdown reminded us that Americans rely on our public employees to provide and maintain important services across the country.

Federal, state, local or public-sector employees  are too often represented by hand-me-down labor unions that current workers inherited from government employees of a bygone era.

{mosads}Historically, labor unions have played a significant role in fighting for both workers rights and fair representation at the bargaining table.


Labor unions laid the foundation for the democratic rights of marginalized minorities when black workers formed the Colored National Labor Union in 1869, 14 months before blacks secured the right to vote.

Thirty-five years later, the American Women’s Trade Union launched a successful campaign for women’s suffrage. Those bottom-up victories stand in stark contrast to today’s top-down operation of unions that are now denying their own members the right to vote.

Unfortunately, union leaders who once fought so hard for democratic rights and representation have refused to recognize voting rights for their own members.

Rather than allow today’s union members to have a real voice and a choice, entrenched labor leaders insist that these public-sector employees simply wear the hand-me-down unions that their foremothers and fathers passed down from the Johnson and Carter years.

In fact, 94 percent of current union members have never had the opportunity to vote for which union will negotiate their pay, benefits, hours, and working conditions on their behalf.

Like a pair of hand-me-down jeans, hand-me-down unions often just don’t fit the current wearer quite right. A union that was last chosen by its members back in the 1960s, for example, may not be the best fit for 21st century employees.

But without a vote through which members can choose their own union, today’s public-sector employees are rendered mute and unable to have a meaningful opportunity to select a new union or hold their current union accountable if it fails to meet expectations or protect its workers’ interests.

Unsurprisingly, public-sector union members have tired of paying dues to unions that they did not choose and that may not represent their true and current interests.

Recent polls show that nearly 75 percent of all union members nationwide want their unions to be more accountable to the rank-and-file, and 82 percent of them support holding regular votes on whether to maintain or replace their unions.

Sometimes the most obvious solution to a problem is the most sensible and the right one: extend voting rights to workers ensuring that public-sector employee unions hold regular, fair elections not only to select the leaders of the unions but to decide on the union itself.

Such elections will help union workers have the unions they want and deserve, and will encourage unions to be more responsive and accountable to members’ interests

Ending the stale, once-and-for-all approach to installing union representation will help members express their concerns and better understand how their dues are spent. Expanding public-sector union voting rights will also make leadership more accountable to rank-and-file members and will strengthen incentives for union leaders to earn broader support from their workforces.

In a free society, these are virtues and goals to be pursued, not resisted or feared. Unions will be strengthened through listening to their employees’ concerns and returning their focus to the members, who will in turn be more satisfied, which is something union leaders have acknowledged.

Lawmakers in states across the country can and should work to guarantee worker voting rights for our hardworking civil servants and public employees. This effort is only fair. It will put an end to hand-me-down unions and ensure that our public-sector workers have the voice and the choice they deserve in selecting their own unions.

It is time for unions to embrace their democratic heritage and support their own members’ right to vote. It is time for all of us to join together to create more perfect unions. It is time for public employees to have a voice and a choice. It is time for worker voting rights.

Robert Alt is the president and CEO of The Buckeye Institute in Columbus, Ohio.


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