Big Labor in the United States has been on the wane for decades. About 6.7 percent of American private-sector workers belonged to a union in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau Labor of Statistics. Public-sector union membership topped 35.3 percent.
Democrats in Congress would like to change that. A bill by Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and John Lewis, D-Georgia, would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to make labor organizing a "fundamental right." They argue that the law should make it easier for workers to band together against unfair treatment from employers.
Is the Ellison-Lewis legislation a way to level the free-speech playing field against corporations? Or would the law coerce workers into joining unions whether they like it or not? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
JOEL MATHIS Before we answer the question of whether union organizing should be covered as a First Amendment civil right, let's consider who has seen such rights affirmed or expanded in recent years.
- Corporations. Thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, corporations are now guaranteed the First Amendment "free speech" right to spend as much as they want to influence political campaigns. The ruling triggered a fierce backlash, but it remains in effect.
-Hobby Lobby. The craft store may not have a soul of its own, but it is free to ignore federal laws that conflict with its owners' religious beliefs, including the mandate that employers offer birth control as part of any health insurance plan they offer employees.
-The rich. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down limits on how much an individual can spend during a campaign cycle, deeming the previous $123,000 limit an infringement on America's essential freedoms.
What, exactly, would be the justification for leaving union organizers off this list? Aside, of course, from naked partisanship and class warfare waged from above.
Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit originated the idea of treating unionization as a civil right several years ago in a New York Times op-ed.
"Some might argue that the Civil Rights Act should be limited to discrimination based on immutable characteristics like race or national origin, not acts of volition," they wrote. "But the act already protects against religious discrimination. Some local civil rights statutes even cover marital status, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation, source of income, or place of residence or business." Corporations, in the end, are groups of individuals who have banded together for a specific purpose - usually profit. Unions are the same thing. They deserve the same rights as their richer colleagues. Of course union organizing is a civil right.
BEN BOYCHUK Obviously union organizing is a First Amendment right. We can argue whether public-sector workers should be unionized, but nobody today disputes that private-sector employees have a right to form or join a labor union.
Freedom of assembly should be free. Shouldn't that be indisputable, too? Unions aren't especially interested in workers freely choosing to join their ranks and pay dues. With membership dwindling and the legal tide turning, they need government protection to remain viable. The "civil right" labor organizers seek is really a new right to coerce workers into membership whether they want it or not.
It's not as though unions don't have extensive legal rights and protections right now. The National Labor Relations Act effectively enshrined the right to collective bargaining 79 years ago. Subsequent laws exempted unions from most trespassing and anti-monopoly laws, as well as whistleblower protections.
The Supreme Court's 1973 Enmons decision even carved out a union exception from federal racketeering and extortion laws. Incredibly, five justices endorsed the view that economic gain through violence is permissible when unions seek "legitimate" objectives. Thousands of acts of union thuggery, intimidation and assault have gone unpunished as a result.
Liberals appear happy to endorse the principle of freedom of association until it runs afoul of their more beloved shibboleths. Then a corporation such as Hobby Lobby - for which exactly no one is compelled to work - becomes Public Enemy No. 1. Then a court decision like Citizens United - which, contra President Barack Obama, did not undo "a century of law" - becomes the worst assault on American democracy since Dred Scott.
Truth is, labor unions are failing the basic test of survival in the marketplace of ideas. Workers are no longer buying what Big Labor is selling.
Freedom of workers to organize? More like freedom of unions to extract more dues. This isn't about civil rights - it's a license to commit extortion.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.