Part of the Washington Examiner's weeklong commentary series on labor unions. To see the entire series, click here.
Rep. Tom Price is House sponsor of the Employee Rights Act, legislation that would ensure workers have a secret ballot in all union elections, protect their privacy during organizing bids and affirm that those in unions are not forced to contribute to union activities that are unrelated to collective bargaining, such as political campaigns.
In an interview with the Washington Examiner, the Republican lawmaker from Georgia explains the need for the bill by noting that the current model of labor organizing is still based on the Depression-era Wagner Act.
He argues that that doesn't make any more sense in our current economy than Americans still driving cars or flying planes designed 80 years ago.
Examiner: What prompted you to introduce the Employee Rights Act?
Price: Well, it’s always important to try to figure out if there are better solutions and better options for folks out there, especially in the area of employees.
When I recognized, along with some others, that there hadn't been any change, any significant reform [in the area of employee rights], to the federal law since 1947 -- when the Taft-Hartley Act was passed -- it just made a whole lot of sense to try to figure out if there were opportunities to have some better solutions.
Then when we looked at the kinds of issues that are supported by both union and nonunion households and Republicans and independents and Democrats, there are a number of ideas that had been floating around out there for a long time and so we tried to put those together into a single piece of legislation that we call the Employee Rights Act. We've gotten a lot of support and good feedback.
Examiner: But you looked at public opinion and poll data in crafting the legislation?
Price: Yes, absolutely, because virtually everybody believed that the union members and those who are engaging in a potential union-formation activity ought to be able to have a secret ballot.
They ought to be able to have ballot referendums. I’ve discovered in this process that only 7 percent of private sector union members, current union members, ever voted on union formation, on being a member of a union.
The vast majority of union members who make up the private sector have joined a place of work that has had a union in place for maybe 50 or 60 years. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to folks who look at that objectively.
Examiner: What causes a recertification election to be required under your legislation?
Price: We go on a periodic basis to determine whether or not employees wish to remain in their current union. If the majority of the members have never voted on the union, then that would trigger an election.
Examiner: Do you see the legislation as simply an employee rights matter? Is there any sort of other interest or reason for doing this?
Price: A lot of union members are forced to give a portion of their union dues, not to collective bargaining activity, but to other activity and they may or may not support that activity.
There's been literally hundreds of millions of dollars spent by unions on elections -- not union elections, but political elections in the general electorate -- and 92 percent of that money has gone to Democratic candidates. So, this is a special interest, obviously for Democrats, especially, in Congress.
But among the workers there’s virtually parity in whether they identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans or independents.
What that means is that over half of the workers in this country who are in private sector unions are forced to give their dues to political activity with which they likely disagree.
That’s not something that’s looking out for employees. That may be looking out for unions and other folks, but it’s not looking out for employees.
What we believe is, as the title of the bill says — the Employee Rights Act — that employees have rights and they ought to be able to exercise those rights whether or not they’re members of the union.
Examiner: Some union people would say that, at least as far as the political spending goes, the workers already have that ability to sort of opt out.
Price: I wouldn’t think so. There is certainly intimidation in the workplace that occurs. Also, as we talked about previously, we can have unions that have membership where only a single-digit percentage of the workers have ever voted for the formation of the union or the maintenance of that union.
It begs credulity in the real world that unless you have periodic recertification elections that you’re going to get any responsible reflection of what the employees actually want.
Examiner: Your bill has 89 co-sponsors but none of them are Democrats. Have you tried to enlist any to support the legislation? What have you heard from your Democratic colleagues regarding this?
Price: Yes, a number of Democrat friends and colleagues have voiced some support for many areas of it.
But right now, sadly, in Congress both in the Senate and in the House, the Democratic caucus is beholden to their special-interest unions.
So there is, if not political, then a collegial retribution to pay if anybody on the Democratic side of the aisle supports anything that is besides the union line.
What I’ve tried to impress upon them is, “Look, all of us ought to be for the rights of workers, the rights of employees.”
So, I'm hopeful that some will come on board at some point when hopefully we're able to begin to get this legislation moving.
With Harry Reid controlling the Senate, the likelihood of passing it in this Congress is not great, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go put the ideas out there.
My colleagues on the other side of the aisle need to think about representing their constituents and not their special interests.
Examiner: Is that actually what some of your Democratic colleagues have said to you? “Look, I’d like to co-sponsor this but I’m afraid of the financial repercussions in terms of running for re-election”?
Price: Well, not in so many words, but what we know is the huge sway that a union political activity holds over the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate.
Again, I appreciate that of the hundreds of millions, we’re talking about $700 million to $800 million over the past 20 years spent by unions on political campaigns.
Over 90 percent of that money has gone to a Democratic candidate. So, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the cause and effect is there.
Examiner: What would you say to people who say this is simply just partisan legislation and not actually reform legislation?
Price: We’re really agnostic as to whether or not unions form. What we do believe is that workers, employees, ought to have the right to say whether or not that union exists.
Again, a majority of Republicans, Democrats, and independents believe that ought to be the case. Virtually everyone thinks that employees ought to be the ones that are the final arbiters of whether or not a union either forms.
The only way to ensure that is with a periodic recertification and secret ballot referendums. So, we’re not anti-union, we’re pro-employee.
Examiner: But nevertheless, typically when you have these types of reforms, they do cause unions to lose members.
Is there any reason why unions shouldn’t be able to adapt to this or is this actually something that’s simply just going to hurt them and they’re just going to have to deal with?
Price: No. I think you identified the appropriate avenue for union officials, union leaders, to take, and that is to change with the times.
Workplaces are dynamic. The situation for workers today is so different than it was 50 or 60 years ago, yet we’re stuck with this model of unions dictating to workers exactly what they must do regardless of the workers or the employee’s ability to have a say over that.
So, yes, unions serve a significant purpose but they have been stagnant in not changing and reflecting the changing workplace, the changing workforce, the changing dynamics within the employer-employee world.
So, we believe, again, that if you stick up and fight for the rights of employees, then the workforce issues work themselves out, as long as it’s the employees that are selecting the path to take.
Examiner: By "this model," you presumably meant the Wagner Act model. Is this something that simply needs just a few reforms or should the whole concept of it be rethought or redone? It has been going along for 80 years now. Is the time to rethink the whole model of federal labor law itself?
Price: Well, you know, we don’t fly planes that were built 80 years ago. We don’t drive cars that were built 80 years ago. We don’t sail ships that were built 80 years ago.
We’ve got a model now in the employer-employee and union relationship that simply is antiquated. I would suggest that the private sector union membership being in single digits — that is, those that have ever voted for it — is a demonstration that the processes and the models need to change and become much more robust and much more collaborative in working with both employees and employers.
This can all be a win-win situation if the unions would recognize that their responsibility is to aggressively and actively represent employees, but they can’t do that if they aren’t able to have employees in a secret-ballot fashion tell leaders what they believe ought to be done.
Examiner: What, if any, type of feedback have you gotten from people in your own district back [in] Georgia regarding the Employee Rights Act?
Price: In my district here in Georgia, but also across our state and across the country -- even in places where unions don't have significant penetration -- what I do hear is folks' concern about the workplace, about the creation of jobs and about the ability of employees to have the kind of opportunities and rights that they believe are most appropriate.
We're in a stagnant economy right now. There are a lot of reasons for that. Employees are concerned, and they know that often times there's a reason that employers are moving some of their capacity, especially in the area of manufacturing, from heavy union states to right-to-work states.
That’s because the economy has changed. The workforce has changed. There’s a dynamism within the marketplace of ideas and employees need the opportunity, the ability, to be able to direct their own destiny and not be imprisoned by rules and models that were put in place decades ago.
Examiner: Do you believe that the current labor laws are actually a drag on the economy?
Price: I think in many places they are. As I said, manufacturers, employers, job creators are voting with their feet and voting with their facilities. We've seen that time and time again.
So, the way to stand up for workers, the way to stand up for employees, is to give employees more opportunity to voice their ideas, voice their concerns, voice their desires for the future of their workplaces.
That’s not currently possible in the model that we have and, again, that is one of the big reasons that we believe the Employee Rights Act is a positive step in the right direction.