The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voters clearly want Congress to protect employees from unions. Here’s where it can start.

A Verizon Communications Inc. employee speaks into a bullhorn on the picket line in front of the company’s corporate office in 2011. (Stephen Yang/Bloomberg)

On Election Day, voters didn’t just rebel against President Obama. There was another pattern in the candidates they chose: Across the country, they picked pols who explicitly supported individual employee rights.

This wasn’t just a canned part of every Republican’s platform. Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Snyder of Michigan, for instance, both won reelection after pushing through significant employee-friendly reforms in their first terms. Even in deep-blue Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner campaigned on a platform to give state employees the right to decide for themselves whether to join a union.

Pro-employee rights candidates now hold majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate, and it’s time for Congress to deliver the pro-employee agenda that has gained so much momentum in the states. Here’s how members can enhance employee rights in the workplace.

The best legislative vehicle for advancing those rights is the Employee Rights Act (ERA). Led by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the ERA  has 29 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than  100 in the House. It’s the most significant rewrite of the National Labor Relations Act in decades, with a twist: Instead of the gridlock that comes with trying to rig labor law to benefit either unions or employers, it focuses squarely on the rights of the employees. (All of the law’s provisions can be viewed at

Take secret-ballot elections, for instance. This basic right of modern democratic decision-making is not currently guaranteed under federal labor law. Instead, unions can get around it in certain cases, forcing employees to pay monthly dues, if union organizers get half of the workforce to publicly sign a so-called “card check” agreement to join the union.

When the union successfully pressures a business to grant recognition based on these cards alone, employees can find themselves paying dues and subject to union rules without having had a chance to vote. The ERA closes this loophole by requiring all union elections to take place via secret ballot. Polling commissioned by the Center for Union Facts from ORC International suggests that even union households overwhelmingly support this reform, to the tune of 85 percent. (The law’s other provisions command similar support.)

It turns out that labor union members are far more ideologically diverse than their union bosses. Election exit polls from this month indicate that 38 percent of voters from union households voted for Republican members of the U.S. House – even though nearly 90 percent of union financial support went to Democratic candidates, according to a Center for Union Facts analysis of data from OpenSecrets and FollowTheMoney. Even in Wisconsin, where labor unions spent big to try to toss Walker out of office (twice), exit polls this year from the Associated Press show that about a third of union households supported the governor.

The ERA requires union officials to receive opt-in permission to spend members’ dues for political purposes. The bosses wouldn’t be able to use union dues money for whatever political causes they wanted.

There are seven provisions in total in the Employee Rights Act, including the right for employees to opt out of sharing their personal information with labor unions during an organizing drive, as well as new penalties for labor unions that coerce or interfere with employees who are trying to decertify their union.

The new Congress has a unique opportunity to offer a reform agenda based on greater choice, better opportunities, and more take-home pay for all Americans. After many years of focusing heavily on business operators, this time Republicans shouldn’t forget the workplace, and cleaning up the indefensible rules that have long favored deep-pocketed labor bosses over employees.

The new Congress can offer a workplace that is more fair, and free, too.