Fulfilling the Promise of America’s Labor Spring

Rick Berman

5/28/2012 12:01:00 AM - Rick Berman

Revolutions are not easy. That’s the lesson of the Arab Spring, where the forces of retrenchment have dug in their heels after the uprisings’ promising beginnings. In Egypt, Syria, Iran, Yemen, and elsewhere, there’s a hard road ahead. The Mideast’s many nation-states make it difficult to create sweeping reforms, even when public opinion is squarely behind them.

It’s a dynamic that’s reminiscent of the latest turn in America’s “labor spring.” After incredible gains – including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ fast-tracked enactment of right-to-work legislation – labor unions and their political allies have gotten to work holding back the tide. Legislation under consideration in Minnesota, Michigan, and other states faces artificially imposed hurdles. Though polls show broad support for reform, the unions are lobbying furiously and staging demonstrations to pressure officeholders into sitting on their hands.

It’s a tactic with a short shelf life. Across the country there are now 23 right-to-work states, with legislation pending in 13 more. And unlike the Middle East, the United States is one nation. When Americans are faced with an unpopular, unfair, and archaic status quo, we often pass a national law that addresses the problem at a single stroke.

Democracy’s gifts of freedom and accountability shouldn’t stop at the workplace door. That’s why Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC) are working to fulfill the promise of America’s labor spring with the Employee Rights Act (ERA) – a bold new bill that would take today’s much-needed reforms straight to the federal level.

The ERA guarantees resoundingly popular measures like secret ballot elections for unionizing and a mandate to re-elect union representation every three years. In polling conducted by ORC International, union and nonunion households were united in support for such measures by commanding margins – with union households favoring the ERA’s provisions by as much as 83 percent.

Unfortunately, union leaders, activist groups, and their political allies in the Democratic party are dead set against even these basic, pro-democratic reforms. They’re happy with an America where over 90 percent of private-sector union members are paying dues to unions they never voted for, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Labor Relations Board.

But the push for labor reform won’t go away because bad behavior on the part of unions affects all of us. When labor leaders perpetuate a corrupt political system and deny workers the ability to control their own destiny, the economy suffers right along with employees. It’s the worst of both worlds: less take-home pay for workers and less productivity for America’s economy – and more cronyism in the private sector.

The ERA would revolutionize this obsolescent regime. Unions would have to get member approval before spending member dues money on candidates or political parties. They’d have to extend to their members the same secret-ballot franchise that all citizens enjoy in the voting booth. And they’d have to face the same steep penalties as bad employers if they interfere with employees’ right to select their own representative.

Arab countries that lack a long tradition of healthy civil institutions might struggle to make good on democracy’s great promise. In America, we shouldn’t have to face similar problems.