Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Unions’ Weird Old Survival Trick Coming to a Congress Near You

CUFDinosaurAn MSNBC report indicates that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) intends to introduce legislation to make union organizing a “civil right.” While Ellison’s legislative language has not yet been introduced, he expressed the desire to make it easier for pro-union employees who felt that their rights were violated to sue their employers.

Current law already allows employees to file for back wages and reinstatement through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process. Ellison’s additionwill do little but encourage lawsuits to tie up the union organizing process—leading to violations of employee rights through card-checks, as employers figure dealing with unions will be cheaper than fighting perpetual litigation by unions. The AFL-CIO, which has backed the “civil right” notion, will undoubtedly be over the moon.

The idea of making union organizing a “civil right” was teased as the one weird old trick that will save labor from its decades-long decline after two writers at The Century Foundation published a book (and an accompanying New York Times op-ed) proposing it in 2012. It got a bit of play among the Occupy Wall Street (remember that?) crowd and union professionals, but didn’t appear to go much of anywhere.

That isn’t too surprising—the writers first pitched the idea around the turn of the millennium  with a reprise in 2004. Perhaps the “civil right” notion isn’t getting traction because it’s bad policy—employers already face sanctions for violating the rights of employees who want to unionize, and this additional step is just a hand-out for union bosses. The idea is even unpopular: In 2012, a referendum to create a constitutional right to collective bargaining failed in the union stronghold of Michigan, even as the state was handily re-electing President Obama. (Labor’s overreach probably contributed to Michigan becoming the 24th Right-to-Work state.)

If codifying an obligation to be harassed by Big Labor failed in the union heartland, it looks like the public have a different view of labor rights than Rep. Ellison and the Century Foundation writers. Indeed, Americans—including comfortable majorities of union households—support fixing the imbalances between unions and individual employees. The Employee Rights Act, which contains seven major reforms including a provision guaranteeing secret ballot votes on whether to form a union, would correct these imbalances. Recent national polling suggests that these provisions are quite popular amongst Americans, with the seven reforms each receiving 80 percent or greater support.

Categories: AFL-CIOCenter for Union FactsEmployee Rights Act