Have Unions 'Occupied' the Occupiers?

Leave it to America’s labor unions to turn revolutionaries into defenders of the status quo. It wasn’t long ago that the Occupy movement belonged in the same category of grassroots insurgency as the Tea Parties. Their tactics and their aims differed widely, of course. But together, they showed that many Americans felt they no longer controlled their own destiny, and the only way to get it back was to take it into their own hands.

That’s a view which is increasingly foreign to today’s Occupy movement—thanks in large part to the unions that have co-opted it. Unions were caught flat-footed by the sudden prominence of the Occupiers. But now, they’ve put themselves first, ensuring that Occupy protests advance their own agenda. The SEIU has gone as far as to rent office space for the former park dwellers. As one union deckhand and Occupy activist told San Francisco public radio: “What we’re really trying to do is break down this narrative that there’s the union and Occupy as two separate entities[.]”

Union leaders have a lot at stake in absorbing the Occupy movement. If they don’t, they’ll lose control of the status quo they work so hard to protect—and the privilege and power that comes with it. Unions have gamed the political system so well that they’re counter-revolutionaries, dedicated to convincing activists and employees alike that they can’t do anything themselves. The unions are co-opting the Occupy movement with the same playbook they use every day with their own members, taking their destiny out of their hands and setting the self-serving agenda of union leadership.

At a moment when voters in both parties are fed up with business as usual in Washington, unions personify what’s wrong with our broken system. Unions pop up everywhere today’s challenges are to be found. They’re not just hobbling America’s recovery inside the factory or the budget-busting public sector. In our education system, they’re impairing the ability of our kids to rise to tomorrow’s challenges.

That’s why now is the right time for the Employee Rights Act (ERA), a new piece of legislation dedicated to reforming our outdated, obsolete labor laws. Sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Ut.) and Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the ERA restores workers’ control over their destinies through paycheck protection, secret ballot votes on unionization, recertification, and strikes, and protection from workplace intimidation and coercion by unions on par with what’s already in place to protect employees from employers’ abuses. The ERA’s measures command broad public support in union and non-union households alike. Polling conducted by ORC International on behalf of the Center for Union Facts shows that approval of the ERA’s provisions ranges between 71 and 91 percent.

Without these reforms, unions will continue to work their members like cash cows instead of individuals with their own dreams, goals, and interests. Employees will see more “quickie” votes without information or secret ballots. They’ll see more support for political agendas they don’t support. And they’ll get fewer chances—if any—to actually vote to recertify their union’s status established by people long since gone from the workplace. Already, less than 10 percent of currently unionized employees have ever voted for the union that collects their dues.

For union leaders, numbers like that insure their power and stability. They are cause for celebration. By seizing control of the Occupy movement and tightening their hold on members and their dues, today’s unions hope to cling to power despite diminishing popularity and shrinking member rolls. Their bitter opposition to labor reform isn’t just an affront to our aspirations for better days ahead. It’s an open invitation to politicians this election year to get behind a piece of legislation that would safeguard those aspirations.