Republican lawmakers are taking aim at organized labor by re-introducing legislation this week to strictly limit union power to force dues from workers who oppose the union's political agenda.
The Employee Rights Act, scheduled to be introduced Monday by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., also includes several changes to the election rules for private-sector workplace organizing, making it harder for unions to win — and hold onto — recognition without genuine majority support from workers.
"Our economy has undergone a significant transformation over recent years, as innovation and technological development have fundamentally reshaped the American workplace. Despite these fast-moving changes, Congress last overhauled our labor laws more than 50 years ago. Today, these outdated laws allow unaccountable union bosses to hinder growth and disregard employees' rights. That's why I'm introducing the Employee Rights Act, which includes a number of important reforms," Hatch told the Washington Examiner.
The legislation would be a severe blow to the labor movement's financial and political clout since it draws a substantial part of its funding from workers who are obligated to support it even if they don't want to join a union.
The two lawmakers had sponsored the same bill in several previous Congresses but it got little traction, never getting out of committee in the Democrat-led Senate. With the GOP now in control of Congress, the measure has a chance to land on President Obama's desk.
It is nevertheless unlikely to become law. Obama would be certain to veto it, and there isn't enough support to override him. But it could force the first major congressional debate on labor rights in decades.
The National Labor Relations Act, the main federal law governing private-sector unions, generally assumes that unions are synonymous with workers and thus gives individual employees who dissent little say in workplace matters.
The Employees Rights Act attempts to change that, limiting the power a union has over workers who do not wish to join it. To its fans, it is about ensuring individual rights.
"This legislation would give workers more control over their working conditions," said James Sherk, labor policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Workers — not union officers — would have greater influence over how collective bargaining operates in their workplaces."
Organized labor is a major Democratic ally. It has spent $573 million in elections over the last decade, 90 percent of that aiding Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. However, exit polls in 2008 and 2012 show that about 40 percent of people covered by union contracts voted Republican.
That's largely because in half of the states in the U.S., union leaders can demand clauses in their contracts with management that all workers must join the union or pay it a fee. Unions say these so-called "security clauses" prevent workers from being free riders on the benefits gained from collective bargaining.
The Republicans' legislation would prohibit a union from using a worker's membership dues for any purpose other than collective bargaining without getting prior written consent.
That is an expansion of rights workers have under a 1988 Supreme Court ruling known as Beck. The court said that forcing workers who oppose their union's political actions to underwrite it violated their First Amendment rights and therefore the union had to return the money to dissenting workers.
In most cases since then, the burden has been on those workers to request that their union to reimburse them, something that generally doesn't happen until well after an election. In effect, unions get an interest-free loan.
The Republicans' bill puts the burden of satisfying the Beck requirement on the unions, which would severely hamper their political spending. Unions also would be required to make independently verified annual audits of their finances available to their members to show where the money is being spent.
The Employee Rights Act also seeks to ensure that a union actually does represent a majority of its workers. Unions would be officially recognized only after a federally monitored secret ballot election, prohibiting so-called "card check" elections where employers simply accept union's claim to have majority support. The support is usually shown through worker-signed cards, hence the name "card check." Republican critics gripe card check often involves fraud and coercion by union organizers or collusion between the employers and the union leaders.
Labor organizers also would have to win a majority of all employees in workplace elections. Currently, organizers can win if they get a majority of the workers' votes cast, even if only a small fraction participate.
Only an estimated 10 percent of current union members actually voted for the union that represents their workplace. In most cases, it was organized long before the worker accepted a job there.
Under the Employee Rights Act, any time a workplace experiences more than 50 percent turnover, a new election would be required to ensure that the existing union still has majority support. The legislation would allow non-members to vote in these elections as well.
The Republicans' legislation would have little impact on unions that have genuine grassroots support from the workers they represent. But it would be a crippling blow to unions that don't.