Michigan’s legislature just passed a right to work law. In right to work states, non-union employees are not forced to pay union dues (or agency fees) for representation. This, of course, is a big blow to the unions, because there are lots of workers who would rather not pay dues that they know are going for purposes other than representing the union members’ interests. Records for one of Michigan’s largest unions show that only 11% of union dues were spent for representation (I saw an average for all unions somewhere of 24% – but can’t remember where it is) – the rest goes for other stuff, like contributions to the Democrat party, and salaries and benefits.
One of the union’s chief arguments against right to work is that the employees that don’t pay union dues will be “free riders”: taking advantage of union representation in contract negotiation, while not paying for the privilege. James Sherk of the Michigan View explains how the unions are misguided on this point (my bold emphasis)
The chief argument against right-to-work laws is factually incorrect. Although most union members do not know it, the law does not require their union to negotiate on behalf of non-members.
The National Labor Relations Act permits, but does not mandate, unions to negotiate as the “exclusive representatives” of all employees at a unionized company. This means that all workers must accept the union’s representation. They may not negotiate separately with their employer. Whether they like it or not, the union represents them.
Thus, unions have considerable leverage when bargaining with employers—they speak for every employee. But unions also have leverage over individual employees, since workers cannot bargain for themselves and must accept what their union negotiates. This enables unions to impose terms like mandatory dues on workers.
Many workers would be satisfied with their union and pay the dues. Others would not. Terry Bowman has worked at Ford Motor Co.’s Rawsonville plant for 15 years. He has long objected to United Auto Workers’ Local 898 priorities. He would not voluntarily pay union dues.
But exclusive representation means Bowman and workers like him have no choice.
Right-to-work laws prevent unions from imposing mandatory fees, giving employees the right to work without paying union dues. Otherwise, right-to-work has no effect on collective bargaining. All other negotiations continue as before. What’s wrong with that?
Unions object that right-to-work is actually “right-to-freeload.” The AFL-CIO argues “unions are forced by law to protect all workers, even those who don’t contribute financially toward the expenses incurred by providing those protections.” They contend they should not have to represent workers who do not pay their “fair share.”
It is a compelling argument, but untrue. The National Labor Relations Act does not mandate unions exclusively represent all employees, but permits them to electively do so. Under the Act, unions can also negotiate “members-only” contracts that only cover dues-paying members. They do not have to represent other employees.
The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly on this point. As Justice William Brennan wrote in Retail Clerks v. Lion Dry Goods, the Act’s coverage “is not limited to labor organizations which are entitled to recognition as exclusive bargaining agents of employees … ‘Members only’ contracts have long been recognized.”
To be fair, most union activists are honestly mistaken on this point. Unions rarely negotiate members-only contracts. And when unions negotiate as exclusive representatives they must represent everyone equally. They cannot negotiate one wage for their members and the minimum wage for everyone else. But the law does not force them to represent non-members in the first place.