Public Sector Unions Give Workers No Voice, No Choice

By Robert Alt


Every morning, hardworking men and women across this country pour their morning coffee and diligently go to work on our behalf—working in our neighborhoods as public school teachers, home care workers, engineers, and in agencies protecting the environment. Unfortunately, while these civic-minded professionals go to work for us, the labor unions that they must join in order to teach our children or serve our communities do not always work for them.


Once a public-sector union is certified, it remains the workers’ representative—potentially forever. In Ohio, for example, the Columbus Education Association has represented Columbus public school teachers since 1968—back when the Beatles were still together and before many of today’s teachers were even born.


Heirloom unions inherited from the Nixon-era are depriving today’s public workers and civil servants of any meaningful voice or choice in the workplace. Many public employees did not vote for their union if only because they could not vote for their union. They were never given the chance or the choice.


Fair and open elections promote accountability. To borrow a popular advertising jingle, “everyone knows this.” Less known, however, is that these inherited public unions are currently denying their own employees the ability to vote.


Even with overwhelming majorities of workers dissatisfied with certain aspects of their representation or the accountability of their union leaders, there is little to nothing union members can do to improve or change their situation—they are simply left with no voice and no choice.


Americans rightly expect and demand choice and accountability in our elected officials and politicians, but we are unfairly denying these same voting rights to our civic workers who are members of public-sector labor unions. When a public-sector union fails to address employee complaints or misspends union dues, there is no ballot for the teachers or public servants to cast to change their union. Instead, public employees remain stuck with the hand-me-down union that workers who wore bell-bottoms chose for them. There has to be a better way. And there is.


With Worker Voting Rights, public employees can have a voice and a choice about their union through regular union elections that make those unions more responsive and accountable to their members’ interests. Worker Voting Rights would give union workers an opportunity to be heard, to voice their concerns to their union leaders, to better understand how their union dues are spent, and to choose for themselves whether to keep the union they have, vote their union out, or vote in a better union. Worker Voting Rights would incentivize union leaders to cultivate broader support among the workforce they represent and to be accountable to their rank-and-file members. Not surprisingly, 82% of unionized Americans favor holding periodic votes on their union representation.


Once-and-for-all unions that rarely—if ever—face re-election have little fear of being “fired” for their poor performance or disregard of members’ concerns. In states that require workers to pay fair share fees as a condition of employment, union leadership failure has next to no consequences, because whether the union negotiates better working conditions for its members or not, whether it spends union dues wisely or not, whether it meets the needs of its members or not, there is almost nothing public employees can do to replace or remove the poorly performing union. Even if these public employees have been disserved or are dissatisfied with their representation, they have to continue paying union dues or fair share fees, or their employment can be legally terminated.


Public-sector unions and their insulated union officials know and count on this questionable practice of denying their members voting rights. Complicated union rules make it exceedingly difficult for workers to call for an election to change their union, allowing unions that are not taking care of their members to remain firmly entrenched regardless. But state lawmakers can guarantee Worker Voting Rights for public employees by providing for regular elections by law.


Unions have played a significant role in America’s workforce for well over a century. But the heritage, legacy, and interests of the unions themselves should never trump the interests of the hardworking men and women these unions represent. Our civil servants and public-sector employees deserve to have their voices heard and their choices matter—they deserve Worker Voting Rights.


Robert Alt is President & CEO of The Buckeye Institute in Columbus, Ohio