By William J. Canary
Article I of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution guarantees certain unique rights to our citizens. In addition to mirroring constitutional guarantees in the U.S. Bill of Rights, Alabama’s governing document bestows the right to have civil disputes heard in a court of law, the right to avoid imprisonment because of outstanding debts, and even the right to freely navigate public streams and waters.
Missing among these, however, is one of the most important and fundamental rights for most of us – the right to work and provide for our families.
The Alabama Legislature is currently working to correct that oversight.
During a high-water mark of labor union activity more than 60 years ago, legislators in Montgomery noticed some disturbing trends. Non-union workers in certain plants, factories, and industries were being intimidated or pushed out by union members who wanted a “closed shop” workplace, and potential industrial prospects were reluctant to locate here in order to avoid the sometimes outrageous demands of organized labor.
To combat these threats to our economic development progress, in 1953 the Legislature passed a right-to-work statute.
But today, we are seeing history repeat itself as union activity is once again on the rise and threatening our ability to create jobs and opportunity. Just two months ago, the United Auto Workers were able to gain a foothold in organizing the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Closer to home, workers at the Golden Dragon Copper facility in Wilcox County moved to join the United Steelworkers union by a razor-thin 75-74 vote.
As a result, it is time for Alabama to enshrine the right to work in our Constitution and send a loud message to economic developers and potential industrial prospects that we remain open for business.
The provisions of the amendment are simple: it further establishes Alabama as a right-to-work state with constitutional protections that prevent labor organizations from forcing employees to join. At the same time, the amendment prevents employers from denying union membership to workers who wish to join.
In some states, labor unions force non-union employees to pay a “fee” in lieu of membership dues because they, too, could potentially benefit from any collective bargaining negotiations with management. Alabama’s proposed constitutional amendment prohibits that practice.
The measure also prohibits labor unions from creating monopolies and preventing other organized labor groups from representing workers.
The Alabama House has passed the constitutional amendment and sent it to the Senate for consideration. If approved, the amendment will appear on the November 2016 General Election ballot for ratification.
Similar efforts on the federal level are progressing.
America’s labor laws have not been substantively reformed since 1947, but our nation’s economy and workforce have since changed significantly. For that reason, the federal Employee Rights Act seeks to pull American labor relations firmly into the 21st Century.
Because of its commonsense reforms, the Employee Rights Act commands strong cross-party appeal and enjoys high favorability, even in union households.
Currently, union members have to opt out of seeing their union dues used for political purposes, and they are often forced to give up certain workplace protections in the process. Far too often, union members see their dues being used to support the election of candidates who are on the opposite extreme of their own political leanings.
This federal proposal would make political spending purely optional and require unions to get positive consent from members before proceeding rather than requiring them to opt out.
It also guarantees secret ballot votes on any initial decision to join a union, which means employees can vote their consciences without fear of reprisal from union bosses.
Both of these fair, reasonable, and level-headed measures being considered by the Legislature and Congress are designed to ensure that union and non-union workers and businesses may peacefully coexist in a calm workplace environment, which will help grow new investments, new jobs, and new opportunities.
Because without jobs and the workers they require, the question of union or non-union quickly becomes moot.
William J. Canary is President and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama.