Parity in Labor Transparency

United Auto Workers Local 2250 picket outside a General Motors plant in Missouri. 2023.

Whom is the person at the desk, on the fryer line, or at the shop-floor workstation next to yours working for?

It seems like a silly question. Isn’t he or she obviously working for the same employer, likely toward the same goal of achieving the purpose of the business, whether through accountancy or some other practical function like making burgers, cars, or other goods? 

In most cases, the answer is yes. But there exists a real possibility one’s new, young, and overtly liberal coworker is actually working for a labor union, trying to foster worker discontent and recruit new members. 

Placing a union activist into employment as a mole to lay the groundwork for union organizing is an old and commonly used tactic known as “salting,” with the mole-activist unsurprisingly known as a “union salt.” Union salts may be ideologically motivated activist volunteers, but they also can be employees or contract operatives paid by the union to advance union objectives.  

This means that union-side representatives can work undercover, creating an imbalance of power in a union representation campaign, with management representatives highly scrutinized by the government and union activists able to be fully anonymous. If workers are going to grant a labor union the extensive powers over them that federal law has authorized, workers should be able to know whether the “coworkers” advocating the union are paid representatives of Big Labor. 

There’s no rule requiring unions to promptly disclose payments to their salts, and it is illegal under federal law for employers to ask workers or prospective hires about any union affiliations they might have. That’s why Congressional Republicans led by Rep. Bill Owens (R-UT) have introduced the SALT Act, which would require unions to disclose payments to workers involved in salting activities. 

If this sounds like a regulation of associational activity, that’s because it is, which has led some to argue the legislation is unfair or is an inappropriate use of government power. These criticisms are misguided at best, and a review of how labor-relations regulations have evolved since the New Deal proves it.  

Historically, the libertarian idea of deregulatory purity has never governed union-management-worker affairs. And the consequence of applying deregulatory purity only to labor union activities, as current law does, creates an imbalance of power favoring union bosses over workers and employers alike.  

Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) during the New Deal, labor unions even in the private sector have not functioned as true “free associations.” Employers are required to negotiate with labor unions that win a government-supervised election with only a bare majority of workers voting within a government-defined “bargaining unit.” In practice, the contract negotiated will apply to all the workers in that unit, regardless of whether they are union members or sought union representation. In states that lack a “right to work” law, those dissenting non-members will be required to pay the labor union for the privilege of being forced to accept representation they do not want nor seek. 

The NLRA gave those and others extensive coercive powers to labor unions. So when a massive strike wave amid post-World War II inflation brought a Republican majority with support from union-skeptical southern Democrats into control of Congress, that majority faced a choice: try to undo the NLRA and risk no fix to the law’s evident failings, or enact more modest changes over a cynical veto from President Harry Truman to place at least some checks on abuses of unions’ power.  

That Congressional majority chose the latter course and passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Truman’s veto. That legislation set a policy consensus among conservatives that accepted the general framework of the NLRA’s extensive union power, but sought to protect individual workers and the public from union abuses and coercion by making union membership and financial support as voluntary as political realities allowed, protecting consumers and the public from labor-dispute fallout, and subjecting union operations to government scrutiny. 

That third principle is where the SALT Act and its compulsory disclosures of union payments to salts come in. 

The SALT Act would modify the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), legislation passed in response to Congressional investigations into labor-union corruption in the 1950s. In those investigations, Congress discovered that management-side labor consultants, most prominent among them a Chicago-based fixer named Nathan Shefferman, were functioning as pass-throughs for employer kickbacks to corrupt labor bosses. In response, the LMRDA was passed to require management-side outside representatives who interact directly with employees to register with the government and declare their relationship. 

Since union representation campaigns are unpleasantly close to “one man, one vote, once” affairs if the union wins (a union, once organized, has perpetual existence unless workers follow the convoluted government-supervised “decertification” procedure), the ability of unions to freely “salt” workplaces exacerbates the imbalance. 

The SALT Act would place equal rules requiring disclosure of paid union salts to those requiring disclosure of paid outside employer representatives.

The institutional left has sought to reward Big Labor by making union organizing campaigns shorter, or bypassing them with “card check.” Big Labor knows that the dynamics of union organizing rely on labor unions being able to make their pitches to workers from trusted positions without skeptical responses from other workers or employer representatives. And they only need to win the vote once to start collecting dues and engaging in compulsory bargaining.  

As long as government-recognized and government-empowered compulsory union bargaining exists, the government require workers be given all the information before deciding whether to form a union and bargain collectively. The SALT Act would accomplish this needed reform. 

The post Parity in Labor Transparency was first published by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.