Unelected Unions

by James Sherk

Senators stand for election every six years. Presidents every four. Members of Congress face reelection every two years. In the U.S., people choose their political representatives. Around Labor Day, it’s worth noting that America’s union members, on the other hand, do not get to choose their economic representatives.

Employees vote on union representation only once. After a union wins it remains certified indefinitely. It never has to stand for reelection (Workers can petition for a decertification election, but legal obstacles make this prohibitively difficult.)

New hires do not get asked if they want union representation. They must accept it as a condition of employment, inheriting the representatives that previous employees voted for. Almost all union members received general representation this way.

Look at General Motors. The United Auto Workers organized GM in 1937. None of the union’s current Michigan members voted for it. Their fathers or grandfathers did. Or consider New York City public schools. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) organized the school system in 1961. Everyone who voted in that election has retired, but the UFT still represents every teacher in the district.

Nationwide, only 7 percent of private-sector workers voted to join their union. In many local governments the figures are lower still. In the 10 largest school districts in both Michigan and Florida, only 1 percent of teachers got to vote on unionizing. South Dakota and Kansas passed collective bargaining in 1970. In Aberdeen Public Schools, just 1 percent of teachers were hired before then. In many of Kansas’s largest school districts, every teacher was hired after the election.

This system enables unions to ignore their members’ priorities. Polls show that most union members dislike seeing their dues spent on politics. That did not stop the AFL-CIO from spending one-sixth of its budget on politics and lobbying in 2010. This also explains union officers’ inflated salaries. How often would members’ of Congress vote against raising their pay if they never had to stand for reelection?

Union members should get to decide whether they still want union representation. At a bare minimum, Congress and state legislatures should require government and private-sector unions to regularly run for reelection, as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s reforms required.

Even better, the government should allow workers to designate anyone to represent them — their existing union, a new union, or through individual negotiation. This would allow workers to hire a representative who would negotiate a contract tailored to their needs. Why should the government force every worker at a company to accept the same contract negotiated by the same representative?

Such reforms would hold unions accountable to their members. They would force unions to compete to earn workers’ support instead of assuming it. No Americans should be denied the right to pick their own representatives.

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