Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Which Workers’ Rights Really Work?

Recently, authors Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit raised the idea of a “civil right to unionize” in a New York Times op-ed. For Kahlenberg and Marvit, it’s not enough that workers have the opportunity to organize if they think it is in their interests.

AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka agreed. “Everybody should have the right to come together to better their economic lot,” he told a reporter at The Daily Caller. “It is a civil right.”

Critics, however, took a different view. “It’s not that workers are being prevented from unionizing,” wrote Prof. Antony Davies of Duquesne University. “The problem, as unions see it, is that it is too difficult to force workers to unionize.”

Some of the disagreement surrounds uncertainty over why union membership has declined so steeply and consistently over the past decades. While the authors attribute the decline to “weak and anachronistic labor laws, they fail to mention that the pinnacle of union membership in America – over 27 percent of private sector employees in 1954 – was built up under the same rules in existence today.

The current drop off in membership is due to union abuse, using dues money for political purposes without regard to employee wishes, and the hijacking of employee rights in other areas.”

From this standpoint the right that matters most to union members is the “basic democratic right of a secret ballot vote” on whether to recertify current unions and to unionize in the first place. The Employee Rights Act, a piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC), includes that right as part of a broad set of proposed federal labor reforms.

Current law may not extend to the workplace the same level of ballot secrecy that citizens routinely enjoy in modern democracies, but it does already provide workers with strong protections against discrimination.

Kahlenberg and Marvit’s call to add a right to unionize to the Civil Rights Act raises interesting questions—not least of which is whether the Employee Rights Act’s measures afford a more substantive reform that workers are able to enjoy the benefits of unions that serve their interests.

It’s ironic that labor leaders are invoking the Civil Rights Act – a piece of legislation that helped enfranchise millions of Americans – when they don’t provide their members with the same liberty, and often try to force unionization through card check and intimidation.

Categories: AFL-CIO