The Right Is Starting to Represent Workers Outside of Unions | Opinion

Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Jim Banks recently proposed offering workers a voluntary, non-union way to organize at work. The Rubio-Banks proposal, introduced this month as the TEAM Act of 2022 with twelve Republican cosponsors, would amend American law to allow the formation of non-union, non-adversarial worker-management committees—called "employee involvement organizations" or EIOs. EIOs would not collectively bargain like unions do but would instead facilitate voluntary cooperation on critical issues like working conditions, benefits, and productivity. In larger companies, an EIO's members would be able to elect a nonvoting representative to the board of directors. Under current law, such arrangements are illegal.

Rubio and Banks argue that many Americans don't want to join a union, but do want a collective voice at work and should have a legal path to getting it.

Their argument prompted loud criticism from several prominent voices on the political left, who dismissed the proposal as a bad-faith effort to undercut American workers. This is odd, given that new options for voice and representation are exactly what workers say they want.

American workers repeatedly and consistently report that they greatly value worker-management cooperation and prefer workplaces conducive to collaboration. Workers have said for decades they would prefer a form of representation that management and employees run together. In those same surveys, workers also report uncertainty and ambivalence toward aspects of what traditional unions offer, especially regarding politics—even as they express support for unions in general.

It turns out that when you ask them, American workers say they want a combination of things that do not fit neatly into anyone's ideological box.

So it's not hard to understand why workers might want what the TEAM Act offers. The EIOs it would resemble the works councils widely used in European workplaces, which allow workers to collaborate collectively with management on a wide range of issues from working conditions to production processes to the introduction of new technologies. The benefits of these councils are well documented; they increase worker-employer trust and worker job satisfaction, and they increase long-term productivity. Both conservative and progressive labor reformers have long advocated legalizing them.

Representation on the corporate board is also something workers want. Americans support putting workers on boards by a 2-to-1 margin, for good reason: Having workers on boards ensures that board decisions are improved by workers' insight and subjected to worker scrutiny, which has numerous material benefits for workers.

Some have highlighted the fact that the TEAM Act's worker board representative would be non-voting, which critics have cast as too modest to effect real change. But they miss what a concerned corporate lobby will not, namely, the fact that successful corporate governance reform is likely to be gradual, and 14 Republicans have just opened the boardroom door to workers from the political right of center.

The primary criticism from progressives has been that the TEAM Act is an attempt at union-busting—a bad-faith effort to facilitate the return of "company unions," which are employer-dominated organizations that offer the appearance of worker representation while undercutting worker interests. But this largely ignores the evidence that workers value cooperative organizations, something that's easy to miss when you're committed to viewing labor issues as a black-and-white question about traditional unions.

The truth is that dismissing the proposal out-of-hand as nefarious only serves to deny workers an honest and constructive debate about how best to ensure them access to the voice they say they want.

This objection recalls an earlier version of the TEAM Act, passed by Congress in 1996 but vetoed by President Clinton. That earlier bill would indeed have placed EIOs entirely under employer control, allowing them to unilaterally create and dissolve EIOs regardless of worker preferences. In their 2022 update, however Rubio and Banks depart from this approach and shift the framework significantly toward workers—not only with the board seat but also by making an EIO a creature of mutual employer-employee consent. Employers cannot unilaterally create an EIO without employee consent, and either party may withdraw their consent—meaning workers can unilaterally dissolve an EIO they no longer believe is serving their interests.

Marco Rubio Speaks at a News Conference
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and members of Congress hold a news conference on the benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits at the VFW Building on April 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. Rubio has said the U.S. has "donated" an air force to the Taliban amid the troop withdrawal. Paul Morigi/Getty Images

If an EIO can only be created if workers want it, and if workers have as much control over dissolving it as the bosses do, how is it union-busting?

If their goal was to weaken America's labor movement, Rubio and Banks would have been better served to sit back and allow its ongoing decline to continue—no help needed. If the bill's purpose were to disenfranchise workers, offering workers something they say they want and giving them a veto over it seems like an ineffective approach. Indeed, some on the libertarian Right argue the TEAM Act is far too labor-friendly for respectable Republicans.

A more constructive criticism would not dismiss the new TEAM Act as bad faith, but instead ask pro-worker conservatives: What comes next? EIOs offer workers a significant opportunity for workplace cooperation and collective voice, but less in the way of collective worker power. In nations where the worker council model works well, it is accompanied by hard-edged bargaining power exercised at the industry level. The combination of cooperative workplace voice and sectoral worker power holds great promise for American workers.

As it stands today, the labor movement is in dire straits. Only 6 percent of American private-sector workers are unionized, and the disinterest of many workers is one of the reasons why. The prospect of real competition should prompt organized labor to confront this uncomfortable reality and evolve accordingly, rather than simply call foul.

American workers deserve good options—whether the voluntary cooperative organizations many workers want, or traditional unions that have rediscovered what once made them great and more widely appealing.

The decline of healthy, thriving forms of organized labor has been a profound loss for an American working class eager for a voice at work, hungry for the collective power it needs to advocate its interests, and searching for solidarity in an increasingly fragmented society. Workers will only benefit from having new options—and from the resulting competition of ideas about how to deliver them the collective voice and power they want.

Chris Griswold the policy director of American Compass. He was formerly a senior policy advisor to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship and legislative staff to Senator Marco Rubio.

The views in this article are the writer's own.