Giving a Voice and Choice to Union Members
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It's Time For Public Sector Workers To Be Given A Voice And Choice

Forbes Robert Alt

This opinion piece appeared in Forbes.

Early next year, the Supreme Court will hear Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. Mark Janus is a child support specialist at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Service who objects to paying union fees, which are currently a condition of his employment. He argues that the compulsory fees force him to speak through his union in ways that violate his First Amendment rights.

If Mr. Janus prevails, he and other public-sector employees will be able to choose whether or not to pay union dues or fees without threat of being fired, which would be a tremendous victory for workers. However, even if Mr. Janus wins in court, public sector union members will still have no say regarding which union represents their bargaining unit.

Every morning, hardworking men and women in every state drink their coffee and diligently go to work on our behalf—in our neighborhoods as public school teachers, home care workers, engineers, and in agencies protecting the environment. Unfortunately, while these civic-minded professionals go to work for us, the labor unions that they must join in order to teach our children or serve our communities do not always work for them.

Once a public-sector union is certified, it remains the workers’ representative—potentially forever. In Ohio, for example, the Columbus Education Association has represented Columbus public school teachers since 1968—back when the Beatles were still together and before many of today’s teachers were even born.

Heirloom unions inherited from the Nixon-era are depriving today’s public workers and civil servants of any meaningful voice or choice in their workplace. Ninety-four percent of union workers have never had the chance to vote for or against their unions—and still won’t even if Janus succeeds in his case.

When a public-sector union fails to address employee complaints or misspends union dues, there is no ballot to cast for change. Instead, public employees remain stuck with the hand-me-down unions that workers who wore bell-bottoms chose for them.

There is a solution.

With worker voting rights, public employees would have regular elections to encourage their unions to be more responsive to their members’ interests. Worker voting rights gives union workers an opportunity to be heard, to voice their concerns to their union leaders, to better understand how their union dues are spent, and to choose for themselves whether to keep the union they have, vote their union out, or vote in a better union. Worker voting rights would incentivize union leaders to cultivate broader support among the workforce they represent and to be accountable to their rank-and-file members. Not surprisingly, 82% of unionized Americans favor holding periodic votes on their union representation.

Once-and-for-all unions that rarely—if ever—face re-election have no worry of being fired by their members for poor performance or disregarding members’ concerns. In states that require workers to pay “fair share” fees as a condition of employment, union leadership failure has next to no consequences, because whether the union negotiates better working conditions for its members or not, whether it spends union dues wisely or not, whether it meets the needs of its members or not, there is almost nothing public employees can do to replace or remove the poorly performing union. Even if these public employees are dissatisfied with their representation, they have to continue paying their union dues or fair share fees, or else their employment can be legally terminated.

Public-sector unions and their insulated union officials know and count on this questionable practice of denying their members voting rights, allowing unions that are not taking care of their members to remain firmly entrenched regardless of their members’ satisfaction. But state lawmakers can guarantee worker voting rights for public employees by providing for regular elections by law.

Unions have played a significant role in America’s workforce for well over a century. But the interests of the unions themselves should never trump the interests of the hardworking men and women these unions represent. Our civil servants and public-sector employees deserve to have their voices heard and their choices matter—they deserve worker voting rights.

Robert Alt is President & CEO of The Buckeye Institute in Columbus, Ohio.