Election Results Will Have Big Consequences for Workers’ Rights

Published December 1, 2008

Shortly before Election Day, Budget & Tax News Contributing Editor Sandra Fabry sat down with Brian M. Johnson, executive director of the Alliance for Worker Freedom, to discuss organized labor and how the national election results might affect American workers.

The Alliance for Worker Freedom is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to combating anti-worker legislation and promoting free and open labor markets. Established in 2003, AWF engages in research, educational efforts, and lobbying to ensure workers’ rights are protected on Capitol Hill and in the states. The organization publishes an annual Index of Worker Freedom.

Sandra Fabry: With the economy as perhaps the number one issue in the presidential race, labor issues seem to be receiving less attention than expected. What should people know about the candidates’ positions on this issue?

Brian M. Johnson: This election will have far-reaching consequences for the American worker, and the contrasts between the two candidates are stark. Sen. Obama would pander and cave to union demands and pass card check [removing workers’ right to a secret ballot on whether to unionize], and unionization rates would skyrocket. Sen. McCain won’t, and unions would not be given preferential or special treatment by the government.

Fabry: Could you say why an Obama presidency, in your opinion, would be so helpful for unions? And could you elaborate on what card check would do?

Johnson: Sure. We know that unions give about 90 percent of all their political contributions to people on the political left. Therefore, the unions expect their money to translate directly into support for pro-union legislation.

Card check, pushed under the misleading title “Employee Free Choice Act,” is the most anti-democratic, anti-worker piece of legislation I have seen. Currently, voting on union membership is just like presidential voting—a private, secret ballot. This bill would take away that right to a private, secret ballot.

Fabry: So voting for union membership would be public? As in everyone would know how you voted?

Johnson: Exactly. What better way to increase unionization rates than open every worker, their friends, and their families up to threats, harassment, and intimidation based on how they voted?

Imagine you were the only Democrat in a Republican neighborhood or club and everyone knew how you voted. You might not be ridiculed and ostracized, because normal civilization is, well, civilized. [But with card check] you’re talking about people who do this for a living, who wrangle people into the union net everyday, living in your neighborhood, now knowing that you opposed them. How is that supporting worker freedom? It’s not.

Fabry: With Democrats controlling Congress and the presidential race swaying between the two candidates, what can people do?

Johnson: I think there is hope, but I tend to be more optimistic than some. On the state level we have had some good victories this year, and there are some promising ballot initiatives that, if passed, will pave the way for some good federal legislation, I hope. We defeated binding arbitration collective bargaining in Iowa with a Democrat house and senate and governor. We were able to place enough pressure on Gov. [Chet] Culver that he did the right thing and vetoed it.

This kind of result from a seemingly hopeless state, given the political climate, leaves me optimistic. Not to mention various right-to-work and paycheck protection ballot initiatives in Colorado and Oregon. And the unions keep shrinking, so that helps.

Education on “card check” remains key, and I think voters and state elected officials can really help push this issue. There are several groups out there besides us. The Center for Union Facts, Freedom’s Watch, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and American Solutions are just a few of the organizations helping to educate about card check. But we always need more help.

On the state and federal levels, people should be calling their elected officials and telling them not to take away their right to a private ballot when deciding on union membership. It’s as simple as taking action.

Fabry: You said unions “keep shrinking.” I have heard two sides of this: Unions are powerful and underestimated, on one hand, and unions are not relevant in today’s society, on the other hand. What side are you on?

Johnson: Neither. Those are both valid points.

Unions are powerful, yes. They plan to spend $300 million on the presidential election. That sounds powerful to me, and I don’t think anyone underestimates the kind of power $300 million brings.

On the other hand, unionization in terms of numbers is down. Total union membership in the United States is around 12 percent, down from 35 percent in the 1950s. Private-sector union membership is down to 8 percent today from a high of 24 percent in 1972.

Fabry: I often hear that union membership rates are up, especially from last year.

Johnson: Marginally they are, but it’s only in one sector and it’s not enough to matter. Public-sector government unions are around 35 percent, up about one-tenth of a percentage point from last year. But if you look at the trend since 1994, it indicates a negative slope, meaning a decline. So all around their numbers are dwindling; that too helps my optimism.

Fabry: Something that I have worked on a lot at the Center for Fiscal Accountability is transparency. Does this issue cross the union-battling radar?

Johnson: Of course, and this is instrumental in allowing worker freedom. Private-sector unions are required by the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) to report financial disclosure forms to the U.S. Department of Labor. All of those forms are accessible on UnionReports.gov, at least for now.

We’ll see if they’re still up after January [when a new president and federal lawmakers would be sworn into office].

Why not have local public-sector unions report their financial disclosures to the state? That way the government union members could go online and search the forms and see where their money is going. As you know, transparency equals accountability.

For more information …

The Alliance for Worker Freedom’s Index of Worker Freedom: http://www.workerfreedom.org

The Center for Fiscal Accountability: http://www.fiscalaccountability.org