06/15/2012 01:31 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Reforming Unions

Unions have a long history of influence. With Governor Walker's victory in Wisconsin, however, unions have suffered five crushing defeats in eighteen months, leaving many to wonder how powerful are unions in the 21st century?

Opponents of unions point to the dwindling membership rates and overestimated influence of elections as two of the many reasons why unions no longer work. However, one of the aspects that seems to be forgotten is that, when given a choice, government employees will quit their union in large numbers. The experience in five states clearly shows what happens when workers have a choice about union representation.

In Washington State, voters approved a "paycheck protection" law in 1992. The law stated that employees must give annual written consent before unions could collect money for political activity. Before passage, approximately 82 percent of the members of the Washington Education Association contributed to the union's political action committee. After the law's first year of implementation only 11 percent of teachers contributed to the union's political fund.
In 1997, Idaho lawmakers required political committees to get annual written consent from workers before obtaining contributions through automatic payroll deductions. According to news accounts, the number of union members contributing to union political committees dropped by 75 percent.

Similar reduction occurred in Utah in 2001, Indiana in 2005 and finally in Wisconsin in 2011.

While one side of the debate wants to keep unions the same, there are many calling for abolishing unions all together. However, neither of those options will fix the fact that government employees' pay, health care and pension plans are bankrupting state and local governments across America. Instead, governments now have the opportunity to reform unions and help states get on the road to fiscal responsibility.

The first reform that must occur for government unions is giving members' choice. People deserve to choose if they want to join, and if so, which union to join. People also deserve to choose whether to engage in political speech. Currently, public employees covered by a government union must pay dues as a condition of employment, even if they don't want to join the union. Unions also use their mandatory dues collected from employees for political and lobbying activities without the expressed support of the employee. And, public employees are told which union they can join and aren't allowed to associate with other unions. If you allow members to choose if and what type of union they join, then unions can effectively represent the people who actually want their services.

The second reform needed is the ending of state and local government collection of union income. Government unions can have political contributions deducted directly from a worker's paycheck. The state shouldn't be in the business of collecting political funds for special interest groups. In Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that states can prohibit the collection of union political funds through government payroll systems. Similarly, government unions collect general dues from employees through payroll deductions. No other business or association enjoys the privilege of having the state collect its income from customers. If employees desire a union's services, they'll be willing to pay for it. Get the state and local government out of the business of automatically collecting dues for the unions.

Increasing transparency would also be a beneficial reform for unions. By requiring government unions to disclose financial information to their members, including union officer salaries and itemized income/expenditure reports, public employees would know how their money is being spent. In addition, union negotiations should be opened up to the public.

Lastly, unions should hold re-elections. Once a government union is made the representative of a group of public employees it enjoys near-eternal security. It is very difficult for employees to replace or remove the union if they are dissatisfied. Unions should face the same requirements lawmakers do and earn their position through frequent re-election campaigns.

If reform is not implemented for unions around the nation, then bankruptcy will occur. America cannot afford to maintain the status quo while government pensions drag state budgets further into the red.