Guest Column: Pro-union organizing bill is back in Olympia

By Don C. Brunell

Last year, it was called the “union neutrality” bill. This year when the Legislature convenes in Olympia, it will be dubbed the “worker privacy act.” No matter how the bill is labeled, it skews the rules to give union organizers the upper hand in the workplace.

After watching union ranks shrink in the private sector, labor leaders across the nation are pressing Congress and state legislatures to give them new organizing tools in non-union shops.

At the national level, they want to do away with the secret ballot election when workers vote on whether to unionize their workplace.

Instead of casting a private vote, workers could be confronted face-to-face by union representatives and “requested” to sign a “check card” indicating union support. The signed cards would be made public to their employer, the union organizers and their coworkers. Under the proposal, these check cards themselves would be enough to secure formation of a union and no formal election would take place.

In a twist worthy of George Orwell, the legislation is called “The Employee Freedom of Choice Act.” In reality, the bill will eliminate free choice.

Here in Washington, the pro-union legislation addresses workplace communications. The proposal is called, “The Worker Privacy Act.” This bill should be labeled “The Employer Gag Rule Act.”

Backers claim the measure is needed to prohibit employers from forcing their religious and political views on their employees, but that is just more of a smokescreen. What labor leaders want to do is make sure their organizing efforts face no employer opposition.

Employers rarely, if ever, hold meetings to talk about religion, and the measure’s language about political issues is astonishingly broad. It bans employer communications about “matters directly related to candidates, election officials, ballot propositions, legislation, election campaigns, political parties, and political, social, community, and labor or other mutual aid organizations.” (Emphasis added).

There goes the United Way campaign and the Salvation Army Adopt-a-Family holiday program at the plant or office. But that may just be collateral damage again because the real target is union organizing.

Traditionally, in union organizing efforts, both union representatives and employers have provided workers with competing views so the workers could make an informed choice in private. The proposal would force employers to the sidelines, while the union remains unfettered.

The bill lets employees decide for themselves which employer communications (meeting notices, e-mails, etc.) violate the law and can be safely ignored. Employers who run afoul of the law face lawsuits and punitive damages. Employees who inappropriately invoke the law and ignore employer’s legitimate directives cannot be punished.

The measure is legally dubious. It infringes on employers’ free speech rights and gives unions the upper hand — something the National Labor Relations Act never intended. But some state legislators might be tempted to pass it anyway.

That would be a mistake.

Even if the measure is ultimately overturned, its passage would send a loud and clear anti-business message to employers considering whether to locate or expand their businesses in Washington state. In effect, the Legislature would be announcing that, “Employers who want fairness and free speech in the workplace are not welcome here.”

• Don C. Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.