Congress attempts remake of labor policy

by Scott Dilley

What do Hollywood and Washington, D.C., have in common? If you are thinking about The Italian Job, Oceans 11, or All the Kings Men, you are on the right track. Our nations capital has is own versions of remakes. The same content is recycled, but the actors change.
Republicans were thrown out of Congress in 2006 because of the Iraq War and the culture of corruption involving lobbying and ethical problems. Democrats pledged to do better but fell into similar traps this time involving payback to unions that helped finance their campaigns.
Regardless of whether a person believes labor unions have made life better for Americans, the fact remains that membership in private-sector labor unions is plummeting. The U.S. Department of Labor reported in January that the number of union members is at a record low. Today only 12 percent of workers are members of a union, compared to 35 percent in the 1950s. In private industries, only 7 percent of workers are unionized. Even though public-sector unions continue to grow, the glory days of private-sector labor unions seem to be over.
But their political clout is still strong. Labor unions were able to invest heavily in the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress. Organized labor contributed more than $66 million to federal candidates and parties and spent $100 million to mobilize voters. The AFL-CIO alone spent a reported $40 million to organize 205,000 union volunteers.
Grateful Democrats were quick to pay the piper. Four issues on House Speaker Nancy Pelosis 100-Hour Agenda were labor priorities, including raising the minimum wage. The new labor-friendly Congress introduced other coercive policies to solidify labors dwindling base, regardless of union members personal preferences.
The so-called Employee Free Choice Act would have eliminated the secret-ballot elections currently used to unionize workers. Instead, a union would be automatically recognized if it collects signed cards from a majority of employees. This process is fraught with the potential for harassment and intimidation.
The U.S. House also cut funding for the Department of Labors Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), which investigates union corruption and oversees union financial disclosure. In the last six years, OLMS investigations have resulted in 775 convictions and more than $70 million in restitution to union members. President Bush proposed a $9.1 million increase for OLMS, but House Democrats cut funding by $2.1 million. So much for union members holding their leaders accountable.
Its no surprise unions seek to enact policies in their own interest, but government should not extend the force of law to keep workers in the fold. Such coercive actions violate First Amendment individual rights. Workers deserve more choices about union representation and political contributions.
Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed that the First Amendment protects workers from being forced to support union politics. The ruling in Davenport v. Washington Education Association reiterated the authority of states to protect the free-speech rights of workers.
Unfortunately, many states still force workers to pay unions for workplace services, even if the worker does not want to be a part of the union. These fees may seem fair, but they come at the expense of personal liberty. Instead of looking for ways to increase traditional union membership, Congress should re-evaluate labor policy to provide for more worker choice.
Union representation should be based on voluntary affiliation in which workers join or pay dues based on personal choice rather than being forced as a condition of employment. Benefits would apply only to members. If unions offer services that workers truly value, there would be no difficulty in attracting and maintaining a satisfied membership. The labor movement would be stronger and could take the high road of protecting the constitutional liberties of those who do not want to join.
The next time you hear criticism of Hollywood producers for their lack of creative content, think of Congress. Original thinking, creative leadership, financial accountability and tenacious non-conformity need to be exercised if union members ever hope to have the flexibility needed to negotiate individually or as a voluntary union.
Instead of settling for the same remakes, lets encourage Congress to write some original content. Putting more freedom in the hands of people is a good place to start.

Scott Dilley is a labor policy analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank in Olympia, Wash.

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