This article originally appeared in the Feb. 16, 2001 issue of the MIRS newsletter.
Another way to phrase this question is, "Should Michigan workers be compelled to join and/or pay fees to a labor organization to get a job or to keep one?" Those who answer in the affirmative will wrap their argument in rhetorical flourishes about their concern for workers, but they must ultimately explain why force should supplant the judgment and the freedom of those very workers.
Right-to-work, in its broadest application, simply means freedom of choice in the labor market. To many workers, it's a concept as American as baseball and apple pie. To today's union leadership, it's a scary notion because it means they would actually have to earn the voluntary approval of their membership by treating them as customers rather than as captives.
The American labor movement's founder, Samuel Gompers, understood the importance of freedom of choice and was not afraid of it. He once told workers, "I want to urge devotion to the fundamental of human liberty—to the principles of voluntarism. No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion . . . the workers of America adhere to voluntary institutions in preference to compulsory systems which are held to be not only impractical, but a menace to their rights, their welfare and their liberty."
Furthermore, Gompers noted, "there may be here and there a worker who for certain reasons . . . does not join a union of labor. It is his legal right and no one can or dare question his exercise of that legal right." Unfortunately, that right is no longer respected everywhere and is met by most organized labor leaders with scorn and evasion.
Michigan is overdue for a thoughtful consideration of fundamental labor law. Since 1947, when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, 21 states have exercised the right-to-work option by making it illegal for union membership to be a condition of employment. Michigan retains its status as a compulsory unionism state, but more because of inertia, misconceptions, and fear of controversy than because of real facts and genuine inquiry.
It's important to recognize that workers are already exercising a surprising degree of choice by voting with their feet. Increasingly, they are choosing to work in nonunion settings. From its high of nearly 40 percent in the 1950s, the percentage of the nation's workers who are union members has fallen to barely 16 percent. Factor out government workers and the figure is in single digits: a mere nine percent of the private sector work force.
The same trend is evident in Michigan, where unionized workers comprise 20.8 percent of all workers and about 16 percent of the private sector work force—half the figures of 1960. The United Auto Workers, which boasted 1.5 million members at its peak 30 years ago, has also seen its membership sliced by half.
Much change has occurred in the labor market since 1960, some of it because of unions themselves. A wide range of legal protections and social benefits has rendered obsolete the once-popular union caricature of the helpless worker. Arguably, some of those protections and benefits have produced costs and problems of their own, but their existence makes it ever harder to convince workers that they need unions to help them.
More importantly, the nature of work itself is being transformed—away from monotonous assembly-line jobs that sometimes invite union intervention and toward more independent, flexible, creative, and individualistic work that makes anachronisms of punch clocks and picket lines. Unions are perceived by many people today as old-fashioned, high-cost barriers to worker entrepreneurship and upward mobility in an increasingly competitive world economy.
Still, Michigan will never become a right-to-work state if people think it would cause a decline in living standards. Right to work means "right to work for less," as union leadership is fond of claiming. But about 84 percent of the people who work in Michigan's private sector (and a whopping 91 percent nationwide) pay no dues to any union, work for themselves or bargain individually with employers, and somehow manage for the most part to do rather well.
Studies that purport to show higher wages in the 29 compulsory unionism states than in the 21 other states are being discredited by more recent and detailed analysis that accounts for differences in the cost of living. Economist James T. Bennett of George Mason University, for instance, has shown that residents of central cities and surrounding suburbs in states without right-to-work laws pay 24.5 percent more for food, housing, health care, transportation, utilities, property taxes, and college tuition than do residents of similar areas in right-to-work states.
Adjusting for the cost of living, including lower taxes, Bennett found in the mid-1990s that families in the 21 right-to-work states were actually earning $2,852 more in real income per year than their counterparts in states without right-to-work laws. And that gap has been growing—it's now double what it was in 1987. In many parts of the country, the evidence indicates that high wages attract union organizing, not the other way around.
States with right-to-work laws are leading the country in economic growth. Between 1960 and 1993, the number of manufacturing jobs in those states rose by 77 percent, far in excess of other states. Since Idaho became the 21st right-to-work state by a decisive vote of its citizens in 1986, its economy has gone from being a chronic laggard to being among the top growth leaders in the nation every year.
Shortly after the right-to-work law allowed freedom of choice, an estimated one-quarter to one-third of Idaho's unionized workers chose to quit their unions. The law has since produced a more accountable union leadership. As the Idaho State Journal editorialized, "Strong unions with responsible leadership need not fear right-to-work; indeed, the voluntary aspect of membership makes leadership work harder. Those labor unions which buck right-to-work the hardest may be those with the least support to begin with." This is a case where the exercise of a worker's basic right to freedom of association produces a harmonious outcome for everybody.
Right-to-work is not anti-union. It is pro-choice on the issue of union membership. It can lead to greater productivity, higher wages, and greater job satisfaction by reducing costly and inefficient union work rules and promoting more harmonious labor-management relationships. It encourages investment in new jobs and invigorates the economy with new incentives for entrepreneurship.
Surveys routinely and clearly indicate that being a right-to-work state is hugely attractive to businesses seeking to expand or relocate. Making Michigan a right-to-work state would do far more good for workers and the general economy than all the discriminatory tax abatements and corporate welfare doled out regularly by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
Experience points strongly in one direction: right-to-work really means the right to work for more—more individual freedom, more jobs, and more income in real terms. The only thing unions have to fear from right-to-work is the free choice of the very workers union leaders claim they are in business to help.
Along the road to right-to-work, Michigan should act to enforce the so-called "Beck" rights of workers. The U.S. Supreme Court held in the 1988 case of Communication Workers v. Beck that a union may compel payment only for "core activities," which essentially limits compulsory dues paying for contract negotiations and grievance proceedings. Although a worker may not be forced to pay for political campaign contributions under this ruling, Beck rights are difficult to enforce. It usually requires employees to first object and then bring private legal actions to secure the right to pay reduced union dues. The best way for workers to avoid paying for extraneous, non-collective bargaining activities is to make these payments completely voluntary. As it currently stands, however, labor unions appear totally opposed to entrusting the funding of their political agendas to voluntary contributions by their own rank-and-file members.
In 1994, the Michigan Legislature required unions to secure the written permission of their members for political action committee contributions. That meant, for instance, that the Michigan Education Association in 1998 could not compel PAC contributions from the tens of thousands of teachers who didn't personally support Geoffrey Fieger for Governor. But that hasn't stopped the MEA and other unions from spending their members' general dues money for political candidates and causes that the members themselves oppose.
The amount of general dues money that union leadership diverts to politics can be considerable. In a 1991 ruling, Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs (six faculty members at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan) had been illegally required to pay for an array of union activities, including politicking, public relations and litigation. The MEA's Ferris affiliate had claimed that it spent only 10 percent of its members' dues on such activities and 90 percent on legitimate collective bargaining business, but the Court found precisely the reverse was true — 10 percent for legitimate union business, 90 percent for the other stuff.
Fixing the union dues problem by enforcing Beck rights doesn't have to wait for a right to work law. It's something that justice demands and that the Legislature can and should take care of right now. Michigan workers need and want such "paycheck protection."
As important as they are, right-to-work and paycheck protection are merely incremental steps to address the deeper problem, which is compulsory unionism itself. Compulsory unionism means that government, instead of being a neutral player in labor-management relations, forces employers to negotiate with unions and prohibits employees from negotiating their own independent working relationships. We need to replace compulsory unionism with voluntary unionism, a government-neutral approach whereby unions have the right to bargain collectively with employers, but must rely on the support of their members for bargaining power rather than the force of law.
The "free rider" objection raised by union apologists is a red herring. In a voluntary environment, unions would represent only their own members. Nonmembers would be on their own. Indeed, every time legislation has been introduced in the Congress to free unions from any obligation to represent or negotiate binding agreements for nonmembers, the unions themselves oppose it. It's not "free riderism" they object to as much as it is competition and worker freedom of choice.
Voluntary unionism is working today. In public education, for example, where compulsory unionism has politicized our schools to the detriment of students and the teaching profession, over one-third of all states have refused to establish compulsory unionism. While seven of these states actually prohibit school districts from bargaining with labor unions, the remaining have adopted voluntary unionism. The states of Georgia, Texas, and Missouri have adopted voluntary unionism and have more members in professional teacher organizations than their union counterparts. These figures demonstrate that teachers want professionalism, not unionism—when given the choice.
Labor reform that brings Michigan law up to date with the times is not something to be feared. Let's give right-to-work, paycheck protection, voluntary unionism, and other pro-worker, pro-freedom initiatives the serious and studied consideration the people of this state deserve.