Another Labor Day has come and gone. The unions have marched their marches and song their songs and directed their threats towards what is still a somewhat cowed political class in Michigan, but before we move on perhaps a little attention should be paid to those who don't quite fit in the usual union versus management template. There are more of them than you might think.
According to the Union Membership and Coverage Database, which uses Census data to estimate union numbers in all 50 states, there are more than 40,000 workers in Michigan who are covered by collective bargaining agreements but who are not formally members of a union. Some of these may be new employees at unionized companies who are not required to join or pay dues yet — the law allows a new hire up to 30 days to join or make arrangements for agency fees — but with union companies tending to lose jobs, and union agents being fairly aggressive, that number is liable to be modest. The bulk of that 40,000 is likely to be workers who, for whatever reason, decline formal union membership.
Why would a worker refuse to join a union, especially when he or she is required to pay union dues either way? Perhaps he or she does not want to be bound to join a futile strike, or is worried that union demands will cost jobs in the long run, or wants to exercise their Beck rights and prevent union dues from being misused on political and social activism, or is repulsed by blatant union corruption. Unions in Michigan often claim the role of defender of the working man, but union reality often falls short of union rhetoric.
The path out of a union is not an easy one though: in an organized workplace the union is your representative whether you want it there or not. You have little room in which to make your own arrangements with the boss — union officials can use the grievance to enforce the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, even if it's to your disadvantage. The union is obligated to represent you fairly, but in practice they have considerable discretion in terms of which grievances to follow and how to resolve them. In the absence of right-to-work protection, employees are bound to pay at least partial dues no matter how poorly union officials do their jobs. Enforcement of Beck rights is hit-and-miss; with the union controlling all records and with the burden on workers to show that union programs are not related to core union purposes of collective bargaining, it is rare for workers to actually receive the dues refunds they are entitled to.
"Escape is never the safest path" as Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam used to sing in the song "Dissident," and in Michigan it is nearly impossible for a worker to make a clean break with a union that has lost his or her confidence. Yet around 40,000 union workers have made this choice to maintain at least nominal independence. That's about 5 percent of the unionized workforce in the state. Union officials and their apologists may like to think of them as betraying the cause of working men. But a case can be made that these are dissidents, much like the old opponents of the Soviet Union, principled opponents of a heavy-handed system that has betrayed its ideals and is impoverishing those it is supposed to benefit. One suspects that, for each one of these 40,000 there are others who have the same concerns but aren't quite ready to take the risks. We owe them the means to hold union officials accountable by passing a right-to-work law and giving workers the final say on whether or not the unions have earned their dues.
Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.