In an effort to loosen labor’s grip on workers, two GOP lawmakers want legislation that would require workers to re-affirm the existence of their unions with new votes every three years.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina are pushing the Employee Rights Act that also would place limits on strikes, how fast a union can organize and how membership fees may be used to support political candidates. The bill has yet to receive a committee hearing in either chamber.
“It’s neither anti-union, nor pro-employer,” Mr. Hatch told The Washington Times. “It’s pro-worker.”
The move comes as unions are showing new signs of a turnaround in growth. The number of members spiked by about 50,000 workers to nearly 14.8 million in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That follows two years of declining membership, during which unions lost nearly 1.4 million workers.
Conservative groups are joining in the fight to handicap unions. The Center for Union Facts recently started running a $10 million campaign to promote the bill. The advertisements are running in the District and were aired nationally on Fox News during the South Carolina presidential primary debate.
Supporters of the bill are taking a new approach. Rather than pitting unions against businesses, they are spinning it as unions against workers.
“There’s not a single provision in this bill that will empower employers at the expense of the union,” Mr. Hatch said. “The only parties whose position will be improved by the Employee Rights Act are employees.”
They paint a picture of workers in the middle of a spectrum, surrounded by businesses on the right and unions on the left.
“It’s about time we start worrying about the employees and the workers, rather than unions and management people,” Mr. Hatch said. “It is fair to both employers and unions, and, far more importantly, it’s fair to workers.”
Secret-ballot elections, instead of card checks, would be the voting method of choice under the Employee Rights Act, which was introduced last August in both chambers.
Few workers - less than 10 percent of union members - vote to organize. Instead, most workers join an existing union as a condition of employment.
This bill, however, would give workers a chance to voice their opinions. Union officials would be up for re-election every three years. At that time, employees could decide whether to keep or eliminate their union.
“My goal is to make sure that employees of a company make the decision on joining unions,” Mr. Scott said. “This just gives them an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, I want to be a part of the union.’ “
“Voters get to choose senators every six years, they decide on the president every four years, and on me every two years,” he said. “To me, it makes sense that union members should decide on their leaders at least every three years.”
Mr. Hatch agreed.
“I think the right of an individual to not join a union is just as essential as the right to unionize,” he said.
In the instances of nonunion workplaces that want to organize, the bill would require a minimum of 40 days between the time a petition is filed and a vote is taken. That would give employees time to hear from both unions and employers before they decide.
This provision comes in response to the National Labor Relations Board’s recent decision to speed up union elections, including in some cases to less than 10 days.
“Nobody has enough time in 10 days to decide the benefits and the negatives of joining a union,” Mr. Scott said.
The bill would also combat strikes. It would streamline the federal process, requiring a majority of union members to approve a strike.
“Strikes can be damaging,” Mr. Hatch said. “Employees lose work and may not get back to work. Shouldn’t they at least have a chance to vote on whether to go on strike?”
He pointed out that strike funds, which provide financial assistance to union members during work stoppages, rarely pay more than 20 percent of an employee’s salary. And they usually have to be actively involved in the strike, such as on the picket line, to get that money.
Unions also would be required to receive written consent from each member before donating portions of their membership fees to political candidates. This would be determined individually, member by member, so some members could agree to support a certain candidate, and others could decide against it. Their money would be split up.
Union membership is split fairly evenly between Democrats (49 percent) and Republicans (47 percent). But 93 percent of campaign contributions go to Democratic candidates.
“I’d like anyone who would oppose this provision to explain to me why it is fair to force workers to contribute to political campaigns at all, regardless of the party on the receiving end,” Mr. Hatch told the Senate when he introduced the bill in August.
The penalities would also be updated, so unions that violate labor laws are held to the same disciplinary measures as businesses that do so.
“We’ve all heard the accounts of unions obtaining signatures through deception and intimidation,” Mr. Hatch said.
The AFL-CIO and SEIU did not respond to requests for comment.