Giving Power to the People, Not Unions

Parsing Scott Walker's labor policy plans


Gage Skidmore

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker just proposed a plan to overhaul the country's labor laws, called "My Plan to Give Power to the People, Not the Union Bosses." It would do that by expanding employee choice and holding unions accountable to their members.

One of the main underlying themes of the Republican presidential hopeful's private-sector reforms is transferring power and decision-making from unions to their members. For instance, the plan would guarantee employees' rights by strengthening secret-ballot elections. Under current law, unions have ways to work around the protections, making such elections less than secret. The change would protect workers from retaliation by not disclosing their choices to unions during workplace elections.

Though federal laws outlaw extortion, the Supreme Court has ruled that they usually do not apply to unions. Walker's plan would change that to protect workers from threats, violence and extortion from unions. Similarly, his reforms would protect whistleblowers who report wrongdoing on the part of a union from being fired or discriminated against.

In theory, public-sector employees are accountable to the public, but their unions manage the government on our behalf. It is for this very reason that public-sector unions present a real problem in representing both sides of the negotiating table—for their own benefit. In this sense, they harbor a special conflict of interest that sets them apart from private companies, private unions, and trade organizations. They also make the government less effective and more expensive.

That's why a President Walker would work with Congress to prohibit public employee unions altogether. Meanwhile, he would implement taxpayer and paycheck protections. As Heritage Foundation labor economist James Sherk explained for National Review, "Walker proposes cracking down on the use of 'union time'—that is, allowing federal employees to work for their unions at taxpayer expense. He also wants to stop unions from using federal resources to collect the portion of dues they spend on political causes and lobbying."

Walker's plan also would establish a nationwide right-to-work law, making voluntary union dues the default option for all private- and public-sector workers. It would give workers the freedom to choose whether they want to be in a union or not. States that want to take this freedom away from their workers would have to affirmatively vote to opt out of right-to-work status.

Sherk noted that Walker learned from his labor battle in Wisconsin. He wrote, "Walker now proposes having union contracts apply only to union members. Non-members who do not pay dues would negotiate separately."

And of course, Walker says that as president, he would stand in solidarity with any governor, Republican or Democrat, who "fights the big-government special interests in their state and takes on collective bargaining reform" as he did in Wisconsin.

Giving more choice to employees and union members while holding union bosses accountable is not only good economics and good policy but also good politics. Indeed, poll data show that it is a very popular theme, even among union members, who tend to be "significantly less satisfied than nonmembers about their job security, flexibility of hours, and recognition for their achievements," said Sherk.

The Walker plan includes many more reforms, such as a repeal of the Davis-Bacon wage controls, which alone could save taxpayers nearly $13 billion over the next 10 years. If implemented, it would be a giant step toward freeing businesses, employers, workers, and taxpayers from the incredible burden imposed on them by federal labor laws and union bosses.