October 23, 2009

October 23, 2009 | Commentary on Jobs and Labor Policy

Hill is Above the (Labor) Law

Most Americans think that all citizens should have the same rights and privileges, and that the same laws should apply equally to all. So it is that the president has just one vote in any election, as does the grocery clerk. And the Treasury secretary or chairman of the Ways and Means Committee must pay taxes just like anyone else (well, more or less).

But one powerful group in our democracy rarely misses a chance to exempt itself from laws that apply to the rest of us. We're talking about members of Congress. Most seem to think it's just too inconvenient to have to abide by those pesky laws they foist on the rest of us.

When the Republicans took control of the House in 1995, the very first item in their "Contract with America" was to "require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress." They did this because, until then, the offices of members of Congress were routinely exempt from the rules that applied to private-sector offices. For instance, lawmakers could run their offices with little regard to basic Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety standards, and some were like hazardous-waste dumps. Meanwhile, the laws they had passed imposed stiff fines on small businesses for even technical infractions.

While the most visible examples of "one rule for you and another for me" may have disappeared, flagrant examples remain. And more may be on the way. One of those involves the truckload of new rules Congress is now considering designed to boost flagging union membership that has slid to just 7.6 percent of the private-sector work force.

As my colleagues James Sherk and Ryan O'Donnell point out in a recent Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, many members of Congress can advocate new laws to push workers into joining unions with enthusiasm because their own congressional employees do not and will not have the right to form a union.

It is time for Congress to work under the same rules it imposes on the private sector. If members think that the burden of these unionization laws is not excessive, then they should apply them to their own offices. If they are not prepared to do that, they should not impose them on businesses in Main Street America.

Right now the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the main law governing unionization, applies only to the private sector. Even though other laws allow many federal employees to organize and bargain collectively, employees in the personal offices of congressmen and senators are excluded.

It seems that Congress -- at least for their own offices -- understands the downside of unionization.

Yet members of Congress who support the current bills -- which would do such things as end secret ballots in labor elections and in other ways push workers into unions -- claim that the proposed laws would actually improve the workplace without curtailing workers' rights or burdening employers.

If that is so, they should be happy to add an amendment at last permitting their own staffs to unionize under the NLRA.

It would be interesting to see just how gung-ho about promoting unionization these members would be with that equal-treatment requirement in place. Would they accept the idea that their offices could be unionized merely if a majority of their staff were pressured into publicly signing cards -- the so-called "card check" -- rather than voting for a union in a secret ballot? That's what one major proposal would mean for private businesses.

And another thing, the NLRA current definition of "supervisor" means that managers cannot be included in a union. But one of the union-backed bills before Congress would eliminate this definition. This means that congressional chiefs of staff or legislative directors would become part of the bargaining unit. So automatic seniority, rather than decisions by a senator or congressman, would generally determine who got such promotions, as well as pay rates and job classifications. Let's see how many lawmakers would tolerate that.

Many members of Congress seem to think it's OK to have one set of rules for them and another set for the people who elect them. That mind-set has led to two completely systems of labor laws in America -- one for the private sector and another for Congress.

That needs to change. If Congress thinks it would be a great idea in the private sector to end secret ballots for union elections, or have key supervisors selected and paid according to a union contract, then presumably it's a great idea for Congress as well.

Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D., is Vice President for Domestic and Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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First appeared in The Washington Times