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Hearing Discusses Boosting Union Coercive Powers

Democrats in Congress are pushing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act H.R. 2474, which seeks to strip workers of long-held protections and bolster the coercive power of labor unions. On May 8th, the House Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing to discuss this union wish-list bill.

A key talking point from Democrats on why this bill is necessary is that the economic prosperity of Americans is linked to high union membership levels. As Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) put it in her opening statement, “as union membership declined, the link between rising productivity and rising pay was eroded…. This shift has undermined the financial security of workers and their families and contributed to the severe income inequality we face today.”

This is an inaccurate portrayal of economic conditions for workers. It is true labor unions have faced a decades-long decline in membership, but that has not resulted in workers moving down the economic ladder. Rather, household incomes are rising and workers are moving up. The American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found that median household income is at its highest level ever and that “[the] typical U.S. household in 2017 had an annual income of $61,372, which is $12,464 more (in 2017 dollars) than the typical household in 1975 ($48,908).” Moreover, while the middle class is shrinking, it is because more Americans are getting rich and moving into the upper class, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) also viewed labor unions as key to fighting income inequality. He referenced the recent United Food and Commercial Workers strike against Stop & Shop, a grocery store chain primarily located in the Northeast. Rep. Courtney said the strike “paid off big time for them” and spoke about how unions can improve wages and benefits.

Rep. Courtney’s claim is accurate as it pertains to current Stop & Shop employees. The contract that was agreed upon did preserve pay and benefits for current employees, but not new hires. This kind of contract is known as a two-tier wage system, and it highlights the downsides of unionization for some workers.

In a blog post on the Stop & Shop strike, I wrote that a two-tier wage system “creates a permanent sub-class of union members and non-members who earn inferior wages and benefits. It denies future hires fair representation and cuts against the union principle of ‘equal pay for equal work.’” Worse, new hires have no say in the ratification of a contract that will provide them with worse pay and benefits than their colleagues who perform the exact same work. Democrats may tout unions as a way to fight against income inequality, but as seen from this contract unions may actually be widening the gap.

Another point of contention at the hearing was employers’ ability to hold so-called mandatory captive audience meetings, which the PRO Act would make voluntary. A witness at the hearing, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, said all employers do at these hearings is intimidate workers and “bash unions.”

When speaking on captive audience meetings, Trumka was particularly animated and upset with the purported conduct of employers. Trumka’s passionate opposition to such meetings only makes his hypocrisy worse. Labor unions frequently lobby state governments to pass laws that force workers to attend so-called union orientation meetings at which unions persuade workers to join. In practice, these union meetings are no different than employer mandatory captive audience meetings. Further, as I previously wrote:

Union orientation meetings have proved problematic in other states. In Washington state, public records obtained by the Freedom Foundation reveal that union organizers for the Service Employees International Union used tactics that were “aggressive,” “rude” and “coercive.” The workers who attended the orientation felt “pressured,” “misled,” “tricked,” “coerced,” “intimidated” and “forced” to sign up with the union. Unions should be able to make their pitch to workers, but it should be the worker’s choice to hear the union out, not a job requirement.

Democrats at the hearing failed to mention certain aspects of the PRO Act. For example, the bill would strip workers of the right to a secret-ballot in certain union elections. Under the PRO Act, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is granted authority to set aside the results of an election (when a union has lost) if the employer cannot prove that allegations they interfered with the election are untrue or did not affect the outcome of the election. Instead of holding another secret-ballot election, the NLRB would certify the union as the employee representative if they could produce signed authorization cards from a majority of workers.

This alternative to secret-ballot elections is known as “card-check,” where unions confront workers and use deception and intimidation to coerce employees to sign a card in favor of unionization. What makes this backdoor card-check provision so nefarious, aside from prohibiting workers to vote their conscious in private, is that over 82 Democrats recently wrote a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that demands secret-ballots in union elections in Mexico. It is unclear why secret-ballot elections are necessary for Mexican workers, but not for American workers.

Other provisions of the PRO Act compound the problems associated with card-check organizing efforts. The bill requires employers to hand over workers private information—home address, cell phone number, and email address—to unions. Workers would not have the option to opt out of sharing their private information. And, unions are known to use workers’ private information to harass and intimidate them at their homes in order to coerce workers into signing authorization cards.

Union intimidation tactics deployed during card-check organizing are so abhorrent that a former United Steelworkers union organizer quit when another union official asked him to “threaten migrant workers by telling them they would be reported to federal immigration officials if they refused to sign check-off cards.”

Overall, the PRO Act is misguided legislation that weakens worker rights and strips workers of choice. The bill represents a blatant attempt by Democrats to increase dues-paying union members at the expense of worker freedom.