Mike Needham

With fears of a double-dip recession growing, Americans are saving more and spending less. Economic uncertainty and stagnant wages are a bad combination for American families.

Image, for just a moment, the following situation:

You complete a very important project for your company, coming in on time and under budget. Your boss is ecstatic and the company’s profits are set to soar. In any economy, especially this one, that is great news. Here’s the catch, though; despite your contribution and your company’s renewed profitability, you are told you are not eligible to share in the financial windfall.

Such a scenario seems unreasonable and unlikely. But for more than 8 million union workers around the country, this is a harsh reality. What could possibly hold back such a stellar employee? The union!

Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? After all, union organizers and their defenders in the political class constantly tell us that unions exist to lift up middle class, blue collar workers. Union contracts do indeed set a floor on wages, meaning workers cannot be paid below a certain amount. But, they also set a ceiling on wages, meaning an individual worker cannot be paid above a certain amount.

Simply put, these union contracts make merit-based pay obsolete.

Unions have actually fought bonuses awarded to their own members. Amazingly, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) sided with the unions, not the workers. They claimed the bonuses constituted an illegal “direct dealing” with the workers, which was forbidden under collective bargaining law.

Why would unions, which are supposed to fight for their members, oppose merit-based rewards for them? Because it is about the union as a whole, not the individual worker.

The current system creates a perverse dynamic in which union members see the union as their true employer (and wage setter), not the company that actually employs them. As a result, hard workers are held back while less motivated workers are propped up. It runs contrary to the spirit and values that built America.

Fortunately, there is a legislative solution for those 8 million workers who are potentially being held back by their union. The Rewarding Achievement and Incentivizing Successful Employees (RAISE) Act would simply allow employers to pay individual union workers more than the union contract specifies.

It is good policy and the economic effects of incentivizing successful employees are well documented. Performance-based pay allows the average worker’s earnings to rise by 6-10%. Hard working employees will be rewarded, while the ones that slack off will not. At companies that were allowed to provide performance pay, the typical union member received bonuses and merit-based pay increases worth $2,600 to $4,300 each year.

In an era of stagnant wages and enormous economic uncertainty, the RAISE Act seems like something politicians of all stripes could support. Unfortunately, lawmakers who are beholden to Big Labor are in no hurry to embrace the concept which the unions would characterize as “union-busting.”

As The Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk points out, “Unions were originally established to protect workers from making too little money, not too much. The RAISE Act would still allow union contracts to set the minimum that workers can earn.”

The RAISE Act would not undermine the original purpose of unions, nor would it allow employers from unfairly rewarding non-union workers with raises just to punish union workers. It is not union busting, it simply allows exceptional employees to be compensated as such.

Union members, the media and Members of Congress should ask union officials why they oppose eliminating the wage ceiling. Will the officials admit their objective is to empower the unions, as opposed to empowering individual workers? Probably not, but that is the real consequence of their actions.

The union-above-worker dynamic is front-and-center in the NLRB’s assault on Boeing, which built a plant in South Carolina to ramp up production of its 787 Dreamliner. However, the NLRB thought the plant should have been built in Washington. The NLRB’s legal campaign it putting 1,800 jobs in South Carolina in limbo because they are not union jobs. That’s not looking out for workers, it is looking out for unions.

Conservatives need to make it about the workers. Introducing and passing the RAISE Act is a good place to start.


Mike Needham

Mike Needham is the Chief Executive Officer of Heritage Action for America, a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to advancing legislation that promotes freedom, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.