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

Chapter V:

Employee Rights Act defines efforts to reinvent the union


Policy: Labor

Orrin Hatch reaches into his past as a union worker to help reform Big Labor

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Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor,Utah,AFL-CIO,Orrin Hatch,Right to work,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.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is one of the few members of Congress who is also a former union worker, having been a skilled tradesman for 10 years in a construction trade union.

Now he is a co-sponsor of the Employee Rights Act, legislation that would, among other reforms, ensure all workers have a right to vote on being in a union -- something federal labor law does not require.

In an interview with the Washington Examiner, the long-serving Republican lawmaker explained what the ERA would do, why it is necessary and how his own experiences early in life as a unionized tradesman influenced his stance on workers’ rights today.

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

Examiner: What prompted you to introduce the bill?

Hatch: I am not anti-union, but I do believe that the unions don’t represent their members as well as they should. It appears to me that organized labor’s a little bit out of control. For instance, organized labor raises somewhere between $14 billion and $22 billion a year in union dues. Let’s take the lower figure, and it’s I think more than that. Over four years, that’s $56 billion. Over eight years it’s $112 billion. Almost every dime of which goes to dues-paid political operatives — the best in the business, by the way — to get out the vote for Democrats, even though 40 percent of union members appear to be Republicans. I think a high percentage of union members would like — and in the polls that I have seen, do like — what’s in the Employee Rights Act.

Examiner: Do you believe that unions — at least as they’re defined under the National Labor Relations Act — are not little-'d' democratic?

Hatch: Let me put it this way: The indication is that 40 percent of them are Republicans, but over 90 percent have never had the chance of voting for or against the union. The reason for that is because the laws are such that they don’t have a right to really vote for the unions. So they have to join the union in order to get a job.

Examiner: You’re referring to the lack of recertification votes in labor?

Hatch: That's right. It's very difficult to ever recertify a union or get rid of a union. So in the non-right-to-work states, you're stuck belonging and -- even worse -- you don't really have any say if you're a Republican and -- even worse -- your dues are going to help elect Democrats and -- even worse -- to support all kinds of liberal organizations that you don't agree with.

The nice thing about the Employee Rights Act is that it would provide a number of substantive protections for employees in the workplace. It is not anti-union and it is not pro-employer. It’s pro-worker. Every provision in that bill has brought support among the union members, who really don’t have many rights, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.

Examiner: Every question of whether workers are organized would have to be settled by election monitored by the National Labor Relations Board?

Hatch: That’s right. That would help them decide whether to join or not join a union. The unions, with my help, have fought for secret-ballot elections all around the world in union elections. Here, they want to take that away right … by stacking the National Labor Relations Board, and doing quickie elections and a whole variety of other approaches that really undermine the rights and freedoms of the workers.

Examiner: You’re describing this primarily as an issue of workers' rights, but is there any concern that the existing laws and rules relating to unions are also an economic drag on the country?

Hatch: There’s no question about that, and I think that if the union members had more rights, it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as it is. For instance, the bill gives them voice, a right to a secret ballot vote before union leaders can order a strike. You don’t realize how hurtful that is to some of the union members that they have to undergo a strike without their consent. It also prevents quickie or snap elections which is what our current National Labor Relations Board is doing extra-judicially. In other words, they shouldn’t be doing that.

Examiner: You don't have any Democrats among the 27 co-sponsors. Have you tried to get any of your Democratic colleagues on board? If so, what did they tell you when you tried to get them on board?

Hatch: Yes, we do and generally the answer back is, “Hey, I can’t take them on. They control our party.”

Examiner: Do they literally put it in terms like that?

Hatch: The few that I’ve talked to do. I have to say that anybody who looks at it would have to agree that’s what they’re doing. Let’s look at it: most of that — $14 billion a year, $56 billion over four years, $112 billion over eight years — most of that goes to promote the union’s political agendas, which many times aren’t really union agendas. Almost none of that is reportable. Everybody else has to report what they give. When you’re given almost every dime of that money — and that’s a lot of money; these are billions we’re talking about, with a “b” — almost all that money goes without any reporting anywhere, and it distorts the whole political process.

Examiner: What do you say to people who would say this is just a partisan action and not really about economics or worker rights?

Hatch: If you look at the facts, you have to conclude that this is a very unfair situation where they can use billions of dollars for political purposes for only one side without any consequences and without 40 percent of their members having much say in it at all. It’s just not right, and it distorts the political process. Everybody ought to have to report. They ought to be representing their members, not just the Democratic Party. Everybody knows that the biggest funder in the Democratic Party happens to be the collective unions.

Examiner: Nevertheless, the type of changes you’re proposing in your bill are typically linked with unions losing members. Would these changes cause serious problems for unions to exist?

Hatch: Well, I don’t know that they would, but unions won’t like them because they right now control every dime of those billions of dollars and they’re used basically for political considerations. And again, for the Democrats only. Now, occasionally they supported a Republican, but boy, that’s a rare occasion.

Examiner: Do you think there’s any reason why they couldn’t adapt to these changes that you’re proposing?

Hatch: I think they could adapt to them. Unions may not like these changes, but union workers sure will. If you ask the workers, “Would you like these provisions?” Almost every one of them would say “yes.”

Examiner: Is this the extent of the changes that you think are needed to the National Labor Relations Act, or are there any more, any others, that you think are needed here?

Hatch: I’m sure there could be more changes. Let’s face it, a lot of people feel that the National Labor Relations Board has gotten so out of whack that we ought to come up with a better system. When the Democrats are in power, they actually implement what really are statutory approaches towards the labor law, and they do it in favor of the union bosses rather than the workers.

Examiner: What do you think is the future of organized labor itself? Some people think it may actually be dying out; do you agree?

Hatch: I think that privately they’ve slipped below 7 percent, where it used to be up over 30 percent. But from a public standpoint, they have grown and grown by forcing government to accept union employees. You can see the high cost of government has exploded, too.

Examiner: So you think maybe it’s on its way to becoming an exclusively public sector phenomenon?

Hatch: I don’t think it’ll ever be exclusively public sector, but it’s primarily a public sector set of organizations now.

Examiner: How does that sort of change things politically, given the fact that the workers are also being paid by taxpayers?

Hatch: The Employee Rights Act would help to make it a little bit better. It would give more rights to union members. There are some agencies in the government where they do not permit unions, like the FBI and other security agencies. They generally don't allow unionization. I question whether we should have unions at the IRS. There should be no partisanship there at all.

Examiner: I like to ask you a little bit about your own experience working for a union. You said you were a tradesman. Could you just tell me a little bit about how you happened to become a member?

Hatch: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, my father was a union member, and I learned his trade and so to do that I had to join the union because Pennsylvania is a non-right-to-work state. I've never been against unions. I just think that the laws are stacked against the workers themselves; that's why the Employee Rights Act makes sense.

Examiner: What was your own experience with the unions like? Did they represent you well?

Hatch: Not particularly. Way back then we all thought you had to belong to a union in order to get a job — and that’s true today, too, in some areas.

Examiner: So it was just sort of a standard thing, nobody thought about it much?

Hatch: We didn’t think about it much, no. We were just glad that you could get a job. But I have to say this, I don’t think I had any say in the union at that time, and back then I was a Democrat, too.

Examiner: And you just moved on in your career and didn’t have to be a tradesman anymore?

Hatch: Well, I gradually decided to go to college but I still worked at the trade during the summers, and then I had to work a couple of years just because I was so poor. I worked at anything I could work at. I worked as a janitor at BYU in my first couple of years, but I always had to work in addition.

Utah is a right-to-work state. So it’s not heavily unionized out there. On the other hand, the unions we have there have been responsible.

One of my better friends was the AFL-CIO union leader. One of my best friends since I've been here in Washington was a man named Irving Brown, who was international vice president of the AFL-CIO and who was probably more responsible for defeating the phony Soviet trade unions than any man alive, and he also represented our country at the ILO, the International Labor Organization, and I worked to help him there. He was one of the greatest men I've ever met. He would call on me because he knew that I was fair, that I would stand up for the workers and for America, and he did too. He was a very outstanding human being. I knew [former AFL-CIO leader] George Meany. I knew [AFL-CIO leader] Lane Kirkland very well.

Examiner: How has the movement changed since those guys?

Hatch: Well, I’m not sure it changed much. Some of Teamsters leaders were very good friends of mine — not all of them, but some of them; at least one of them. They knew that if they came in with a decent request that I’d help.

So it isn’t a matter of not liking unions. It’s liking workers more. I think I’d put it that way. There isn’t a thing there in that worker rights bill that at least 80 percent of the workers wouldn’t support, and in many cases a lot more than 80 percent, if they really understand it.

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