published Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Employee freedom: workers need to know their rights

Richard Berman
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    Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts

According to a new report, 28 percent of Tennessee's union households would leave their union if they could do so without penalty of losing their jobs, seniority or pay.

That's the finding of a new poll by National Employee Freedom Week, a nationwide campaign running this week. It conducted a series of scientific surveys to ascertain just how many of the nation's union household members would support leaving their unions if they could.

Tennessee's results weren't out of the ordinary. Nationally, 33 percent of respondents indicated that they would stop paying union dues if given the chance. Even Midwestern states with strong labor roots had impressive numbers: Pennsylvania and Michigan came in at 27 percent and 28 percent, respectively, and in Illinois 30 percent would support opting out.

These results beg the question: Why aren't union members leaving their unions in droves? Quite simply, because they don't know they can. Organized labor has worked overtime to make sure that every employee knows that they have the right to unionize.

The NLRB's invalidated "poster rule," which would have required employers to post notice of an employee's right to unionize in a conspicuous place, was a case in point. Predictably, the emphasis was on an employee's right to join a union, but failed to equally support the corresponding right not to join.

Yet the fact is that union members in every state -- including Tennessee -- have the right to leave their union. Because Tennessee is a right-to-work state, where holding a job is not contingent on joining the union, this choice is obvious: They can simply decline membership without any loss of salary, benefits or seniority.

There are other options, too. Union members also can choose to only pay for their unions' collective bargaining expenditures, rather than having their union dues go toward the union's politics. This is known as an agency fee.

Employees who take this path are guaranteed safety; it is illegal to revoke or otherwise modify their salary, benefits, seniority or employment. Considering that more than 90 percent of unions' political spending goes to Democrats, this is an especially attractive option for the 43 percent of union households that exit polls show voted for Republicans in 2012.

It's also likely that many union members disapprove of unions' other excesses. Since 2001, union leaders have been prosecuted for embezzling more than $100 million. Perhaps worst of all, more than 90 percent of union members never voted in favor of the union that represents them; they either voted "no" or were forced into it the moment they were hired without a chance to vote.

Updating federal labor laws would go a long way toward fixing some of these problems. The Employee Rights Act would ensure workplace democracy and empower workers by guaranteeing secret ballots for unionization votes and strikes, among other measures. It also would criminalize the threat of union violence and require that union members explicitly consent to the use of their dues money for politics -- necessary reforms that ensure that the interests of union members and union leaders align.

Regardless of what happens at the federal level, however, Tennessee's employees need to know what rights they have right now. The fact is, fundamental rights don't stop at the office or factory floor -- and when it comes to union membership, employees have the freedom to decide for themselves.

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts.

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