Undermining Right to Work

Dem legislation would undermine anti-coercive unionism laws

Members of SEIU hold a rally / Getty Images

Democrats are working to push federal legislation that would override right to work laws across the country.

Democrats have introduced a pair of bills that would help to impose coercive unionism on public sector workers. The legislation is ostensibly about promoting federal collective bargaining, but in practice each would overrule right-to-work laws in states across the nation. The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act (H.R.1154) would require all levels of government to collectively bargain with public safety employees. A reintroduced version of the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act would create a right to unionize for all public-sector employees.

The Democrat-led Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions examined both bills at a hearing Wednesday. Rep. Andy Levin (D., Mich.) said that collective bargaining should be considered a fundamental human right and painted right to work laws as out-of-step with other developed nations.

"The United States is not in compliance with international norms," Levin said. He added that there is a "unique anti-unionism" in the U.S., which he says the two proposed bills aim to fix.

The Republicans in the subcommittee, led by ranking member Rep. Tim Walberg (R., Minn.), argued that the proposed bills are not about human rights, but rather a limitation on personal liberty.

"We are not any other nation in the world," Walberg said. "We fought a Revolutionary War to be unique. And what was that uniqueness? Freedom … We are talking about liberty and the pursuit of happiness here in this discussion today. We're talking about the freedom to make choices."

The hearing came a day before the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's Janus v. AFSCME, which ruled that forced union fees violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The ruling barred government agencies from requiring public sector workers to pay labor dues or fees as a condition of employment. Union leaders, however, said that collective bargaining requirements would not infringe on the rights of workers.

The Deputy General Counsel of the AFSCME, Teague Paterson, testified that Congress has the authority to pass the two debated bills requiring states to comply with collective bargaining requirements, which would be controlled by the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). He said the requirements would strengthen unions, which he claims help minimize the wage gap and overall income inequality.

William Messenger, staff attorney for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation who helped argue Janus before the High Court, testified in opposition to the bills. He called them "a step backward" from the Supreme Court ruling. There are 26 states with right-to-work laws, which prevent employers from entering agreements that require their employees to pay union dues. Messenger argues the proposed bills violate the 10th Amendment by forcing right-to-work states to contradict their laws.

Democrats questioned witnesses who have benefited from union support, such as Tina Y. Whitaker, a 21-year veteran teacher and member of the United Teachers of Dade. In the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling and passage of right-to-work laws, Whitaker said "morale is low" among teachers, and that they fear their "rights will be taken away."

Several public safety labor organizations echoed those concerns. Tom Brewer, president of the North Carolina Firefighters Association, testified that there are understaffing issues with firefighters around the country, putting public safety at risk. He blamed inadequate staffing on weakened labor organizing, and said strengthening labor's negotiating power would help increase hiring.

"Having a say in the workplace is a fundamental right for firefighters," he said.

Rep. Rick Allen (R., Ga.) said that a strong economy helps generate greater economic results for public agencies or departments. He said Georgia has received a significant boost since adopting right-to-work. The state has been able to lure away labor-weary employers. He credited the policy with helping Georgia rank as the best state for business by Site Selection for six straight years.

"The people of Georgia want choice," he said.

This argument appeared to frustrate Rep. Marcia Fudge (D., Ohio), who opened her time for questions with a sarcastic declaration.

"It’s just so pleasant to hear my colleague Mr. Allen talk about supporting choice," she said. "I hope that one day you will all support a woman's right to choose what she wants to do with her own body."

Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D., Iowa), a sponsor of one of the introduced bills, expressed similar frustration with Republicans, saying that their "anti-union and anti-worker rhetoric" is "offensive" to her. Finkenauer, a daughter of union workers and former Iowa state legislature, said she cried after the passing of a bill in her state two years ago that limited collective bargaining power—which inspired her to introduce her bill in Congress.

A 2007 version of the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act passed the House 314-97 but was shut down in the Senate.