Everybody Misinformed About Right to Work

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02 Feb 1937, Flint, Michigan, USA ---Here is the scene at Chevrolet Parts Plant No. 9, in Flint,where 12 persons were injured as Union Pickets,including about 75 women clashed w/ Company police in the latest outbreak of violence in the sit-down automobile strike.Sheriff Thomas Wolcott has demanded National guardsmen to prevent further trouble. The strikers' sound truck which sounded the call to arms is in the foreground. Police used tear gas against Pickets' stones and clubs.
Photo: Bettman/Corbis

Michigan’s sudden enactment of a right-to-work law has sparked a major national debate about compulsory unionism. Charles Krauthammer flays Democrats for opposing a law that simply allows workers the choice of deciding whether or not to belong to a union:

A free country should allow its workers to choose whether to join a union. Moreover, it is more than slightly ironic that Democrats, the fiercely pro-choice party, reserve free choice for aborting a fetus while denying it for such matters as choosing your child’s school or joining a union.

Michael Moore, meanwhile, announces via The Ed Show that he will commit “civil disobedience” and run his own film company as a closed shop:

I will not obey this law. If you’re gonna come and be a camera man, a soundperson, and editor, a writer on my next film, if you don’t belong to the union, you don’t work on my film. That’s the position I’m taking. And let them come after me.

Not to spoil a great argument, but I have news for both sides: It was already illegal to force workers to join a union. Seriously! Don’t trust my word on this; trust the rabidly anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which explains, “You may not be required to be a union member. But, if you do not work in a Right to Work state, you may be required to pay union fees.

So the difference here is that, in non-RTW states, unionized workers have to pay some kind of agency fee to unions that bargain on their behalf, but they don’t have to join the union (or pay for things like the union’s political activity). In RTW states, they don’t have to pay the agency fee either. The reason this matters is a collective action problem. Workers may enjoy the bargaining power of the union, but they have no individual incentive to pay to support it if they can get the same benefit for free.

Why is it fair to make workers in union workplaces pay an agency fee even if they don’t want to join the union? If you step back and think about it, the focus on this as a matter of personal liberty is kind of silly. On almost every single point of possible discontent you may have with a job — you don’t like the pay, you don’t like the hours, you don’t like your boss, you don’t like wearing a hairnet, you don’t like having ESPN blocked on your work computer even when there’s no work for you to do — the recourse is go work somewhere else. That recourse is also available for people who don’t want to pay an agency fee.

On top of that, there’s an additional recourse available for union-hating workers that isn’t available for most things. If a majority of workers don’t want to be represented by a union, they can vote to decertify the union.

So the whole “right to work” philosophical debate centers on whether workers who can’t persuade their colleagues to vote to leave the union and don’t want to leave their job deserve the additional recourse of withholding any fees from the union. Conservatives have taken an obsessive interest in this abstruse question of individual liberty, but it’s fundamentally a question about power. Management doesn’t have a collective action problem — it can represent itself. Labor needs to pool its resources to gain either negotiating leverage or political power, which is why conservatives make such a fetish over individual prerogative in this one particular area.

Anyway, Charles Krauthammer may be reassured to learn his concerns about compulsory unionization are groundless. And Michael Moore may be surprised to learn that he is actually vowing to disobey not the Michigan legislature but the Taft Hartley Act of 1947.