Special Report - Out of Touch with America: Are Unions Obsolete?

Chapter V:

Employee Rights Act defines efforts to reinvent the union


Policy: Labor

Big Labor turns left even as workers, lawmakers form new union models for the future

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Politics,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor,Worker Centers,Labor Series,Are Unions Obsolete,Reinventing the union

Part of the Washington Examiner's weeklong commentary series on labor unions. To see the entire series, click here.

For nearly two years after the 2008 election, an entire side of the AFL-CIO's Washington headquarters sported a banner calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act -- the “Card Check” bill.

The banner faced the White House, which is just opposite the headquarters. Card check is still Big Labor's vision for the future of the American workplace.

Under Card Check, federal law on workplace organizing would be almost entirely on Big Labor’s side.

Out of Touch With America: Are Unions Obsolete?

A five-chapter special report by the Washington Examiner.

Chapter 1: Big Labor’s identity crisis
» Big Labor's identity crisis
» The decline of the labor union
» Diana Furchtgott-Roth: Public employees unions help boost state debt crisis
Chapter 2: Unions and the Democratic Party
» Democrats know better than to bite the Big Labor hand that feeds them
» Steven Malanga: When unions use non-member dues to finance political activities
Chapter 3: Right to work vs. Card Check: Unions face challenges
» Despite repeated failures, Card Check still top Big Labor priority
» Right-to- work surge is reviving America's Rust Belt
» Unions in right-to-work states make opting out nearly impossible
» Q&A: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
» Q&A: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence
Chapter 4: Forced unionism: The SEIU and Illinois home health care workers
» Illinois politicians forced home care workers into union that donates heavily to them
» Forced unionization turned Illinois homemaker into Supreme Court plaintiff in Harris v. Quinn case
Chapter 5: Employee Rights Act defines efforts to reinvent the union
» Big Labor turns left even as workers, lawmakers form new union models for the future
» James Sherk: Want to help workers? Reinvent the union
» Richard Berman: Employee Rights Act would make unions accountable to members
» Q&A: Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch
» Q&A: Georgia Rep. Tom Price

Any time labor organizers claimed to have gotten more than half of a company's workers to sign cards backing them, the employees would be unionized. Management and workers would have no further say.

As the recent case of the United Auto Workers and Volkswagen shows, those claims don't automatically reflect the actual result of workplace secret ballot elections.

But Card Check was too much even for many Democrats. Congress never approved the AFL-CIO's bill.

On April 29, 2010, without fanfare, the AFL-CIO took its banner down. President Richard Trumka insisted at the time that it was only being replaced. But neither the banner nor the legislation has returned.

This wasn’t just another legislative defeat for Big Labor. It was the end of their best hope to reverse their movement’s long-term decline, now just 11.3 percent of the workforce.

Without Card Check, it is difficult to see how Big Labor survives over the long term as it is presently structured.

Big Labor knows it, too. Before its 2013 convention, the AFL-CIO surveyed its members and found that even they believe Big Labor’s model is outdated.

“[T]he most widely held opinion is that we need a more open conception of what it means to be a part of the labor movement, an idea that is sometimes called ‘alt-labor,’ organizations for workers that are outside the tortured paradigm of the National Labor Relations Act,” the survey found.

It even suggested that “members-only unions” were an approach that should be considered. Those are unions that don’t involve all people at a workplace, just the ones that affirmatively want to be in a union.

That’s notable precisely because Big Labor has for decades scorned such an approach, preferring contracts that force all employees in a company to be members.

Mostly though, Big Labor's response has been to ally itself even more tightly with environmentalists, civil rights activists and other left-wing groups. The theory is that this will get non-union people pushing union causes.

Big Labor has funded and run a number of nonprofit activist groups -- also known as “worker centers” -- to do this. Working America, Fast Food Forward and OUR Walmart are the most notable examples.

“My theory is that workers centers are just third-wave unions. We had craft unions, then industrial unions in the Industrial Revolution, and now we have a new economy. That new economy has given rise to a new form of unionism that we right now call worker centers,” Jose Oliva, networks director for the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, told Global Nation, a public radio program.

“The reason worker centers emerged is because unions were unable to organize workers in some of the growing sectors of the economy. The advantages to workers centers include not being constrained by the National Labor Relations Act,” he said.

But making non-union liberal activists a more prominent part of the labor movement means giving them more influence.

The AFL-CIO's close alliance with environmentalists has resulted in it being neutral on the Keystone XL pipeline, for example. That has infuriated its own building and construction trades members.

“We're repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job-killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” Laborer's International Union of North America President Terry O'Sullivan said in 2012.

The labor movement's recent embrace of comprehensive immigration reform has produced similar rumblings within the ranks.

Big Labor leaders also embraced Obamacare despite the fact that their members already have health care -- and then belatedly realized the new law was more of a threat than a benefit.

When Trumka tried to open up AFL-CIO membership to non-union people at its 2013 convention, he was met with fierce pushback and dropped the idea.

Nevertheless, this appears to be where the labor movement is heading: further leftward with groups like Moveon.org and Occupy Wall Street as its model.

Actually representing workers’ specific needs is further down the list — as long as it doesn’t conflict with the other groups’ agendas.

At the same time, another labor model is emerging. It is a free-market version without the coercive aspect of most union contracts.

The main factor is the revival of right-to-work laws, which protect workers from being forced to join a union or pay dues to one as a condition of employment.

That's already the standard in half of the states: Indiana and Michigan adopted the laws in 2012, and Wisconsin's labor reforms are a de facto version of the same, bringing the total nationwide to 25.

More may follow: 21 state legislatures debated versions of the law in 2013. The Supreme Court case Harris v. Quinn is being closely watched because it may do the same thing for public-sector unions.

Under legislation introduced in Congress called the Employee Rights Act, workers would also be guaranteed the right to vote on unionization using secret ballots without fear of coercion or intimidation.

The ERA would also strengthen their rights to withhold dues spent on political activities they oppose.

Other key provisions of the ERA require that unions be subject to worker recertification votes when their original membership leaves.

Presently, only an estimated 7 percent of private sector union members have ever voted on forming the union they belong to. Most simply inherited them when they were hired.

Neither reform would take away the right of workers to band together and bargain collectively, but they would ensure unions are genuine, little “d,” democratic organizations, unlike the current, top-down models found in the AFL-CIO.

This would transform organized labor into a service-oriented model obliged to address directly the needs and concerns of workers.

But adoption of this new model will have to wait until at least 2016. It won't happen as long as Democrats control the Senate and the White House.

While right-to-work laws are linked to declines in union membership, that’s because most unions rely on coercive “closed shop” contracts.

Others learn to adapt. Nevada has a right-to-work law and has a unionization rate of 14.7 percent, well above the national rate. There's no reason why other unions couldn't adjust, too.

“Workplaces are dynamic. The situation for workers today is so different than it was 50 or 60 years ago and yet we’re stuck with this model of unions dictating to workers exactly what they must do regardless of the worker’s or the employee’s ability to have a say over that,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., co-author of the Employee Rights Act.

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