Without right-to-work, unions can present workers with an offer they can’t refuse: pay the union or lose your job. This type of forced association is rare in the United States.
Without right-to-work, workers are forced to financially support political speech they do not endorse. Empowering workers to opt out of paying unions they disagree with gives them more of a voice and provides them greater freedom and choice.
In 2022, the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, spent 98% of its political spending on progressive candidates or causes, according to OpenSecrets. Its counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers, also devoted 98% of its political spending in the same way. Teachers who support different candidates or causes, if working in a non-right-to-work state (prior to the Janus decision), would be forced to subsidize this speech, even if they found it antithetical to their values.
Political issues are just one source of conflict between workers and unions. Workers may disagree with a union over how it spends the dues it collects. For example, according to its filings with the federal government, the NEA took $377 million in dues and fees from workers in 2021. But it spent only $32 million on representational activities. That was less than half of what the union spent on politics, which totaled almost $66 million. It spent another $56 million just on benefits for union officials. On a percentage basis, the NEA spent only 8.5% of the dues and fees it collected on directly representing its members.
This is so even though a large majority of union members believe that representational activities are the most important responsibility of a union. This disparity between union spending on representation and other activities may be enough for workers to wish not to associate with a union and to withdraw their support.
Some workers may choose not to support a union because of mismanagement or wrongdoing. The recent scandals plaguing the United Auto Workers are a good example. To date, 12 officials involved with the UAW have been convicted of charges relating to corruption, often in connection with the misappropriation of union dues for personal luxuries. This includes thousands of dollars’ worth of cigars, meals, luxury villa rentals and golf equipment. The UAW lost 6% of its membership between 2020 and 2021, some of which may have been driven by this scandal. Even union members who agree with the UAW’s representational and political activities may wish to withdraw their support if their dues are used in this manner.
Other workers may choose to withdraw support because their union offers them insufficient value. Prior to Michigan adopting right-to-work, the Mackinac Center uncovered a unionization scheme known as “dues skim” involving the SEIU. The union worked with the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm to unionize home health care workers. These workers were typically the family of seriously ill or disabled people who qualified for Medicaid support. For the care they provided, these family members received modest government subsidies.
The SEIU and Granholm administration treated these workers as if they were state employees, even though they were really employed by the patients they cared for. Classified as state employees, these home health care workers could be unionized and forced to pay dues to the SEIU. These caregivers received no representational services from the union, however, because there was no employer with whom to bargain. The union, nevertheless, siphoned over $33 million from these Medicaid payments — money meant to care for the sick and disabled.
After the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Snyder ended the dues skim by clarifying that these workers were not state employees, the SEIU launched a ballot initiative, known as Proposal 4 of 2012, to enshrine dues skim into the Michigan Constitution. That initiative failed, with 56% of voters rejecting it.
No longer under obligation to pay the union, workers fled the SEIU in droves. By 2020, SEIU Michigan lost 51% of its total membership, and SEIU Healthcare Michigan lost 84%. Membership declines like these signal that the home health care workers forced into the SEIU had no need for the union’s services in the first place.
There are countless reasons why workers might opt out of paying a union. The power to withdraw financial support from a union — the essential element of right-to-work laws — provides workers with a real voice in determining how their union functions. It also affords them the freedom to choose with whom they want to associate.
Employees seem to cherish the opportunity: When workers first obtain the option to disassociate from unions, they typically do so in large numbers. For example, in 2012, the state of Michigan employed 35,356 people who were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, 32,680 of whom were union members. Ten years after right-to-work went into effect, there were 32,643 such state employees, but only 21,770 of them remained in the union. The portion of state employees opting out of the union more than tripled, increasing from about 8% to 33%. This suggests that a significant portion of workers appreciate the opportunity to exercise their right-to-work rights.