February 22, 2011

February 22, 2011 | Commentary on Labor

Unionizing Through Regulation

The labor movement is losing its customers. Private-sector union membership has fallen below 7 percent. Only 1 out of every 10 nonunion workers tells pollsters he or she wants to unionize.

The unions have only themselves to blame. They haven't adapted to the modern work force. Today's workers want — and expect — employers to recognize their individual contributions. Few want a one-size-fits-all contract that treats everyone alike. Yet that is exactly what collective bargaining offers.

So what are unions doing to reverse this trend? Their leaders want the government to help them organize — and they have the clout to attempt it. Unions collect billions in annual dues and spend that money heavily on politics — almost all of it to elect liberals. When they speak, Washington listens.

Their top legislative priority is the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act. The bill replaces secret ballots unionizing elections with publicly signed cards. Being able to pressure unsupportive workers certainly would boost union membership. However, even some Democrats balked at taking away secret ballots, and the bill stalled. The midterm elections ended the labor movement's hopes that Congress would unionize through legislation.

Now union leaders want the executive branch to unionize through regulation. In this, President Obama is rewarding his friends. His administration has quietly reinterpreted the law to push workers into unions — whether they want them or not.

In one of his first acts, the president signed an executive order promoting Project Labor Agreements on federal construction projects. A PLA requires construction contractors to sign collective-bargaining agreements before starting work. Thanks to Obama, workers will have to hand over part of their paychecks for union dues if they want a federal construction job.

Obama also appointed Craig Becker, a former general counsel for the Service Employees International Union, to the National Labor Relations Board. There, Becker has aggressively reinterpreted the law to favor unions.

Companies may recognize a union without a secret-ballot vote. However, workers can file for a secret-ballot vote to decertify the union. Soon after Becker's appointment, the NLRB announced its intention to remove this option. Soon, workers who get organized without a private vote will have to wait three years before they can vote to leave.

The NLRB also has made it easier for unions to negotiate with companies before they represent their employees. That lets unions cut sweetheart deals with management. The message: "Don't resist our organizing, and we can guarantee we won't ask for much." This may boost union membership, but it hardly serves workers.

Obama's Labor Department has similar priorities. Secretary Hilda Solis rapidly rescinded her predecessor's union transparency measures. Financial conflicts of interest? Union official's total compensation? Union trust fund spending? That's information that Obama's Labor Department has decided workers don't need to know.

This doesn't benefit workers, but it's a boon to union interests. Many companies use this information to demonstrate that unions don't have workers' best interests at heart. Unions would rather workers stay in the dark.

Perhaps the most egregious union-pushing case is occurring at Delta Air Lines. Delta's employees earn 10 to 15 percent more than workers at their unionized competitors. In 2002, and again in 2008, they voted against unionizing. After Delta's merger with Northwest Airlines, unions filed for another vote. Then they abruptly withdrew their petition.

In a private letter, the AFL-CIO asked Obama's appointees on the National Mediation Board (which oversees airline unions) to rewrite the election procedures. Since Congress created the board, unions have needed the support of a majority of workers. Not voting counted as a vote not to unionize.

Obama's appointees changed the rules to recognize a union if a majority of voting workers supported it — even if they were a minority of all employees. Airline employees who opposed unionizing were used to voting "no" by not returning their ballots. If they did that in the new system, their choice wouldn't count.

Unions refiled for a vote under the new rules. They still lost. Every group of employees voted against collective bargaining.

Now the unions have appealed for a revote. They allege, incredibly, that Delta interfered with the election by reminding its employees to vote. The National Mediation Board can use these charges as a pretext for redoing the election. They can keep holding revotes until they get the result they want.

Since Obama's appointees are former union officials, they probably will do just that. In the meantime, Northwest's former employees must stay on their lower union-negotiated pay scales.

Management gets the union it deserves. Workers whose employers mistreat them should and do have the right to unionize. But unions should have to earn workers' business. Foisting unions on workers does not help them — or the economy.

James Sherk is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Sherk Research Fellow, Labor Economics
Center for Data Analysis

First moved on The McClatchy News Wire service