Our recent full-page ad in The New York Times is shaking up the defenders of the status quo. If MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s staff is any indication, they’re rattled enough to fall back on odd arguments that do more to underscore the truth of the Times ad. Maddow’s Laura Conaway:
“Fewer than 10% of employees in unions voted to join their union,” the ad says. “In most cases, the employees who voted for the union are dead or gone.” This is a little like saying that fewer than 10 percent of Americans voted to have their states join the United States of America because they’re all dead or gone, but hey.
Revealingly, Conaway assumes that unions are a lot like governments and countries—permanent organizations that rule over people with no right to break off relations with them. Of course, unions are nothing of the kind. But that’s the sort of thinking that powers the labor status quo. Challenging it head-on digs up big hypocrisies: if today’s unaccountable, power-hungry unions are so unlike North Korea’s rulers, why are they so similar to sovereign, perpetual political institutions? It doesn’t make sense.
Of course, at least some Americans who actually did help establish the United States thought even its founding documents could prevent people alive today from realizing the change they desired. Thomas Jefferson said “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.” For Jefferson, every law “naturally expires at the end of 19 years.” Surely Jefferson would reject Conaway’s analogy.
But you don’t have to be as radical about politics as Thomas Jefferson to reject it. After all, membership in a union is nothing like citizenship in a country, and labor regulations are nothing like the Constitution. In fact, our tradition of asserting and protecting rights in America speaks strongly in favor of ensuring that union members have access to basic democratic rights like a secret ballot and regular elections — exactly the kinds of guarantees the Employee Rights Act provides.