The Republicans have rightly been criticized for refusing to hold hearings on their bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but even when they do hold Congressional hearings, the only benefit to the public is to reveal how little they seem to care about fact-finding. Last week, the House of Representatives held a hearing on three bills designed to make it harder for non-union workers to organize and for unionized workers to hold on to representation. These bills have the Orwellian names we have come to expect – the Workplace Democracy and Fairness Act (H.R. 2776), the Employee Privacy Protection Act (H.R. 2775), and the Employee Rights Act (H.R. 2723). Since a recent Pew Research poll found that 60% of adults in this country have a favorable view of labor unions, while less than seven percent of private sector workers have been able to secure union representation, Congress ought to focus on removing obstacles to organizing. But, of course, it is no surprise that a Congress that is prepared to strip away health insurance for over 20 million Americans, also wants to deny union representation to as many workers as possible.
I’ve written about Congressional hearings before (here and here), and this latest hearing followed the same script. The Republicans invited three witnesses, while the Democrats were only allowed to invite one. Each member of the committee has only five minutes to ask questions (and pontificate), and the Republicans refuse to ask any questions of the witness invited by the Democrats. The Republican witnesses were a management lawyer, a spokesperson for the Society for Human Resource Management, and an anti-union worker. The Democrats invited Guerino “Jody” Calemine, General Counsel of the Communications Workers of America.
The three bills under consideration are efforts to not only rollback some modest reforms by the National Labor Relations Board, but to go much farther to weaken the right to organize. The ostensible rationale for these bills are two actions by the NLRB – the rule on election procedures that went into effect on April 14, 2015, and the Specialty Healthcare decision that clarified the standard for when one group of workers must also include another group in their proposed bargaining unit. Since the new election rule went into effect, the NLRB has conducted over 2,200 elections involving over 135,000 eligible voters. Republicans in Congress are complaining because the new rule has eliminated some opportunities for employers to delay elections, and it has required employers to provide unions with available contact information for workers that reflect the communications revolution that has occurred in recent years. Despite such a large sample size, the Republicans did not produce a single witness who could offer first-hand testimony about how sharing cell phone numbers or e-mail addresses harmed workers. And needless to say, the Republicans were not interested in hearing from any workers who were glad to receive a cell phone call from a union organizer. Subcommittee Chairman Tim Wahlberg did not try to explain how denying worker contact information to unions would be consistent with his professed goal that “workers should have the chance to hear from both sides of the debate.” And, while Wahlberg and the invited witnesses speculated about how hard it could be for some employers to find adequate time to run a “vote no” campaign, once again, no one present offered even a single real-life example to back up this speculation.
The witnesses also provided no evidence to support Wahlberg’s bizarre assertion that Specialty Healthcare “has created division in workplaces across the country, buried small businesses in red tape, and undermined job creation.” In fact, if Republicans really cared about respecting the rights of workers who favor unions as well as those who oppose them, they would realize that Specialty Healthcare is actually good for both groups of workers. In the real world, the views of workers on unionization are often heavily influenced by front-line supervisors. An abusive supervisor will tend to make workers more receptive to organizing, while a supervisor who treats all workers with respect and does not play favorites, will often make workers reluctant to unionize. Specialty Healthcare allows workers with an abusive supervisor to organize separately without also having to drag along the contented workers who love their supervisor. Consider the facts of Specialty Healthcare. There were 53 certified nursing assistants, most of whom were pro-union. The employer wanted to add an additional 33 housekeepers, activity aides, kitchen workers, and clerical employees. If 70% of the nursing assistants were pro-union and 70% of the other workers were anti-union, then the union would still win an election in the larger group. The result would just be a more divided bargaining unit, with anti-union workers complaining that their voices had not been heard.
One of the three bills in this attack on collective bargaining, H.R. 2723, goes far beyond repealing Obama-era reforms. It would bar employers from voluntarily recognizing unions, it would allow employers to delay elections by filing meritless appeals, and, it would impose a rule for counting votes that would result in defeat for virtually all sitting members of Congress – regardless of how many workers actually vote, the workers would not secure union representation unless a majority of all eligible voters cast votes in favor of unionization. The sponsor of this bill, Phil Roe, represents Tennessee’s First Congressional District. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 569,543 people aged 18 or older in the district, yet in 2016, Roe was elected with only 198,293 votes, and in 2014 he received only 115,495 votes. Of course, Roe isn’t worried about hypocrisy. In fact, in the same bill, he has proposed that existing unions should be subject to periodic retention elections, where the union could be voted out based on a majority of those who cast ballots. He similarly proposed that unions that interfere with workers’ NLRA rights would be liable for double damages, without providing similar double damages in the much more common scenario where employers interfere with workers’ rights. Roe also wasn’t concerned with learning any facts that might interfere with his preconceptions. He used most of his five minutes at the hearing to offer his own opinions. One part of his bill would require a secret ballot to authorize strikes, and this led Roe to reminisce about strikes from his childhood. But, if he took the time to educate himself about facts he would learn that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, strikes are not what they used to be – in the 1970s, there were an average of almost 300 major work stoppages per year, and in 2016 there were just 15.
While Congressional hearings don’t live up to the ideals of our civic textbooks, they do serve the useful purpose of shedding light on how Congress works. As Anthony Bourdain once wrote, if a restaurant can’t keep the bathroom clean, you can only imagine how bad the kitchen must be. Likewise, if this is what the Republicans act like when they’re on C-SPAN, you can only imagine how bad they must be behind closed doors.