According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, labor unions spent more than $142 million on federal candidates, parties and outside spending trying to influence the 2016 election — more than double what they spent in 2008. Even this eye-popping figure is conservative, as it doesn’t include big spending on ballot measures and other tactics to boost voter turnout.
The election results suggest these resources would have been better spent trying to influence their own members. Unions spent 87 percent of these contributions on Democrats, yet CNN and Fox News exit polling found that support at the top of the ticket was close, with Democrat Hillary Clinton beating Republican Donald Trump among union member households by only 8 percent. In comparison, President Obama won union households by 18 percent in 2012.
Union member support for Mr. Trump is even more striking when you consider union political advocacy spending — disguised as collective bargaining activities but implicitly political in nature. According to new Center for Union Facts research, labor leaders sent nearly $530 million to Democrats and closely aligned liberal special-interest groups from 2012 to 2015 — 99 percent of their entire advocacy budget. The Democratic Governors Association received more than $10 million, while Catalist — the Democratic Party’s data firm of choice — raked in more than $7 million. Advocacy groups run by Al Sharpton (National Action Network) and Jesse Jackson (Rainbow PUSH Coalition) have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years.
What explains this disconnect between what union bosses want and how union members vote? Unions either aren’t saying or aren’t sure: The AFL-CIO’s political director told one reporter, “We’re still digging into that.”
Let me offer an explanation: It comes down to the fact that union bosses put their parochial interests above their members. Union bosses invested in Democrats who would advance policies to make it easier to unionize workplaces and increase dues payments.
This disconnect between union bosses and union members is perhaps most evident with the Employee Rights Act (ERA). Introduced by Rep. Tom Price, Georgia Republican, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, the ERA has eight reforms that increase freedom in the workplace. The ERA provisions are supported by more than 80 percent of the population, including those in union households. This support cuts across party lines, polling equally well among Democrats, Republicans and independents. In fact, the only major opposition (to the degree it’s ever publicly surfaced) to increasing the rights of employees in the workplace comes from union bosses who do not want to have their power over employees reduced.
Union member support for Republicans and Mr. Trump reflects a mandate to pass the ERA as the first major change to a 1947 law regarding union power over their members.
Perhaps the most relevant ERA provision in light of the union funding disconnect is what is commonly called “paycheck protection.” This change would require employees to opt-in to paying the portion of their dues that funds the political spending of union bosses. The union leadership reaction is telling. Their silence is deafening.
There are plenty of reasons to support paycheck protection. Under federal law, the only way to get out of paying for the ideological causes members don’t support is through a complicated and bureaucratic opt-out process. Changing Big Labor’s prolific advocacy spending to an opt-in process would uphold the ethical principle that you shouldn’t have to spend your own money on politics contrary to your own interest.
Speaking of ethics, the ERA would also guarantee secret-ballot elections as a condition of unionization. While tens of millions of Americans exercised their right to a secret ballot vote on Election Day, many employees don’t get the same opportunity when it comes to deciding whether to unionize their workplace.
Approximately one-third of unionization efforts occur through the undemocratic process known as “card check.” This often-intimidating process allows union organizers to publicly and repeatedly pressure employees into signing membership cards, which can then be presented to management as a demand to recognize the union. Many of these employees would not choose union representation if they could cast a private ballot. And internal union literature as well as public admissions confirm that when it comes to a guaranteed private vote, unions are handicapped by democracy.
And to further that democratic outcome, the ERA calls for these secret ballot elections to recur after substantial workforce turnover. Today, less than 10 percent of currently unionized employees voted for the union that represents them. Like in the political sphere, re-election acts as a powerful check on abuse of power. At the moment, union representation in a workplace is rarely challenged given current law. It’s a prescription that allows union bosses to take their members (and their dues) for granted.
Donald Trump and other newly elected members of Congress should reward the support they received from union members with a strong workplace agenda. The best place to start would be by passing the ERA.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
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