by Sen. Doug Whitsett
In a truly free market economy, labor relations should be decided in voluntary negotiations between business and labor interests. People should have the right to work in any labor environment that is mutually acceptable to the employer and employees.
Many companies and their employees have endured and prospered for generations without the need for third party influence. On the other hand, some labor and business interests have exhibited a long history of attempting to gain control of the workplace through political influence.
The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) guaranteed employees the right to self organize, and to select representatives of their own choosing to bargain collectively with employers. The Act applied to all employers engaged in interstate commerce except for airlines, railroads, agriculture and government. The Act allowed unions and employers to agree to a closed shop wherein employees must be a member of the union as a condition of employment. If the employee ceased to be a union member for any reason he could be summarily fired, even if he had not violated an employer rule. The bill also created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to settle labor negotiation matters.
The NLRA was amended in 1947 to outlaw the closed shop. The Taft-Hartley Act prohibited unions from forcing employers to fire employees for violating the rules of organized labor. However, the amended Act continued to provide that an employee in a union shop be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment. An employee that did not wish to be a union member was still required to pay the equivalent of union dues.
The Act also provided for individual states to adopt “right to work” laws that required the workplace to be an open shop. These laws prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers that require an employee to be a union member or to pay dues to organized labor as a condition of employment.
In 1962 President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988 that allowed the federal workforce to organize into unions. His Order resulted in the rapid rise of the unionized public workforce in many states and cities including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the National Education Association (NEA).
The traditional process for creating a union in the workplace is for labor leaders to approach the company’s employees and attempt to convince them that union collective bargaining can result in better compensation, working conditions, and job security. A union election can be forced if labor representatives are able to convince at least 30 percent of the employees to sign their intent to seek organized labor representation.
The NLRB process provides both union leaders and company representatives ample time to campaign for their respective positions before the election is held. A majority vote of the employees in a confidential ballot election determines whether the employees will be represented by a labor organization. Any effort to change representation or to dissolve the union is strictly regulated by NLRB processes.
It is readily apparent that the struggle to achieve superiority in the workplace through political influence has not diminished over the years.
The influence of organized labor in the private sector has waned mainly due to the high cost of union labor that makes unionized companies less competitive in the marketplace. At the same time, public employee unions have grown rapidly in both numbers and power. This is largely due to their lack of competition and their ability to influence legislation.
Twenty four “right to work” states have kept the influence of organized labor in check. These states are consistently among the national leaders in job creation, per capita income and economic growth. Their favorable business environment has acted as a magnet for capital investment and industrial growth.
Oregon has been a national leader among the twenty eight states that champion the cause of union shops and organized labor. Our public employees are among the most highly unionized in the nation. Our state has consistently been a national leader in unemployment, with nearly 20 percent of the workforce currently unemployed, underemployed, or having dropped out of the workforce. At the same time Oregon leads the nation with nearly 23 percent of the population using food stamps. It has remained in the bottom third of per capita income among the fifty states, and economic growth in most of the state is stagnant at best.
The Oregon Legislative Assembly adopted a “card check” law in 2007 that allows unionization without a secret ballot election. The process created allows union organizers to pick off one employee at a time until a majority has signed its intent to seek representation. The law requires the Oregon Employment Relations Board to certify a labor organization as the exclusive representative of employees once that majority has been reached. An actual union election is no longer required.
In 2009 the Legislative Assembly passed more laws designed to aid the efforts of organized labor. Two “gag rule” laws were adopted that strictly limit how employers can communicate with their employees regarding political matters. The ban includes any discussion with employees regarding the support of political or constituent groups. Since labor organizations are constituent groups, the law effectively bans the employer from discussing labor organization efforts with their employees. However, the ban does not prevent union representatives from discussing labor organization issues with the company employees.
This law is obviously biased in favor of organized labor and arguably violates the constitutional right to free speech.
The current federal administration is also advancing a political agenda designed to greatly enhance the scope and power of organized labor in the private sector. Although Congress has refused to adopt legislation authorizing “card check” unionization, similar to what the Oregon Legislature did in 2007, it has largely stood silent as the administration has taken repeated political actions to shift the balance of power to organized labor.
The President stacked the National Labor Relations Board, by appointing pro-labor advocates during Senate recess, in order to avoid the requirement for Senate confirmation of the appointments. The newly appointed Board majority actually sued Boeing Corporation, alleging that the company’s plan to build a new factory in a right to work state violated labor relations laws. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled the NLRB recess appointments unconstitutional, because only the Senate can declare itself in recess.
Not to be outdone by the NLRB, the Securities and Exchange Commission implemented rules, authorized under the Dodd-Frank Act that greatly enhanced the ability of unions to place their representatives on corporate board of directors. This was a concerted effort by organized labor to take control and unduly influence corporate leadership. Fortunately, the rule was struck down by the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals calling the scheme “utterly mindless”.
The National Mediation Board arbitrates labor disputes regarding airlines and railroads where employees are not allowed to strike. The President appointed the president of the pilots union and a former president of the association of flight attendants union to that board. The board recently changed the rules to provide that employees who do not vote in a union election are no longer counted as part of the overall workforce. This action grossly reduces the number of votes needed to establish the majority required to authorize a union election. It effectively counts non-existent ballots as a pro-labor vote to organize.
History has clearly demonstrated the need for a balance of power between business and labor interests. It has also demonstrated that the political process is a poor means of regulating that balance because commerce is too much at the mercy of the composition of the political majority. Labor costs should be driven and controlled in a free market by the productivity and demand for labor.
Oregon’s failure to create new jobs is largely a function of the uncertainty caused by the intrusion of both state and federal government in the labor markets. A Right to Work Law guarantees that no person can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to either join or not join a union. Further, employees cannot be compelled to pay either dues, or payments in lieu of dues, to a labor union. Twenty four states have enacted Right to Work Laws under the authority granted by Section 14(b) of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.
In my opinion, Oregon should be the 25th state to adopt a Right to Work Law.
Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls