During a radio interview last week, incoming Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville was asked about the prospects for a right-to-work bill. Richardville replied that right-to-work, which guarantees individual workers will have the choice to pay union dues or withhold support based on their own values and their own opinion of the union's work, would not be a top priority: "Twenty percent of the workers in Michigan are unionized," MIRS quotes Richardville as saying, "and the idea of going in and changing one of the fundamental privileges for years seems to me to be more disruptive with little positive results."
Now, whether the state is ready for a right-to-work campaign or not is a political judgment that intelligent and well-meaning folks can disagree about, and in Richardville's defense he was speaking more or less off-the-cuff, but there's something jarring about what Richardville said — in particular the notion of "fundamental privileges."
Our state and federal constitutions recognize fundamental rights: rights of conscience and expression, rights of person and property, rights of due process and rule of law. These fundamental rights apply to all men and women, and they make up the foundation of a republican (note the small "r" here) society. Government is expected to respect and protect these rights in all but extreme circumstances.
Privileges, by contrast, are extended to only a few. In a republican society, privileges create problems; they pose a threat to equality before the law. The notion of "fundamental privileges" that government cannot withdraw without causing some sort of "disruption" is antithetical to republican government, though it would fit well in a feudal society, with its complex web of privileges and obligations that tied individuals to their stations in life.
The distinction between a right and a privilege can be blurry sometimes, but it is clear that unions have no inviolable legal right to dues from workers who are opposed to the unions' actions; the constitutionality of right-to-work is pretty much beyond dispute. Any moral right to union dues depends on the assumption that all workers benefit from union representation, which is dubious to say the least when so many workers in unionized industries have lost their jobs.
Unions in Michigan have the privilege of extracting union dues from workers without regard for those workers' own opinions. That privilege might be important to union officials, but it is hardly fundamental.
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