There was a time in America when local governments and employers could take advantage of powerless workers. Unions formed as a result. Nowadays, government generally sides with, instead of against, unions. The single biggest advantage unions have, of course, is collective bargaining rights – the right to negotiate for whole groups of employees.
Even with these advantages, however, unions have been losing membership in every sector but government -- which is another story. In the last 25 or so years, private sector union membership has dropped from about 19 percent to under 8 percent today. Most decertification votes, giving workers the chance to end union representation, go against the unions.
One reason unions have alienated potential members is that they often focus on politics instead of supporting their members. Last week, in fact, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against a Washington state teachers union that had been spending dues on political activities -- against the wishes of individual teachers. Some of those who protested the use of the funds weren't even union members but had to pay to keep their teachers' jobs.
This week, though, the unions are going to try something that could reverse their long decline. The Senate will vote on a measure the House has already passed that would do away with secret ballots on votes to unionize. This would allow union officials to visit individual workers separately to persuade them to sign a card in favor of the union. Given the rather colorful history of some labor unions, it’s not hard to understand why so many people think this is a very bad idea.
Nevertheless, the current congress may in fact pass it. Unions give a lot of their members'-- and nonmembers'-- dues to political candidates, and they're really good at providing free labor to campaigns. So they have a lot of influence in certain parts of congress. That may explain, for example, why the House Appropriations Committee is apparently planning to cut the budget of the Office of Labor Management Services -- the office that investigates illegalities by unions.
Let me restate the obvious. In America, we need the right to join a union. We also need the right not to join a union.
Fred Thompson has been a lawyer, actor and United States Senator. He writes exclusive analysis and commentary for Townhall Magazine.
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