II. The Nature of the Right-to-Work Debate

Right-to-work is a labor law term used to describe state laws or state constitutional provisions that ban any requirement of union membership or financial dues obligations as a condition of employment. Currently RTW laws exist in 22 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. A right-to-work law secures the right of employees to decide for themselves whether or not to join or financially support a union.

The opportunity to enact a right-to-work law is assured by Section 14(b) of the Federal Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 (also called the Taft-Hartley Act). That section reads:

Nothing in this Act shall be construed as authorizing the execution or application of agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment in any State or Territory in which such execution or application is prohibited by State or Territorial law.

These 44 words are fighting words to labor union officials who charge that their union security and solidarity is jeopardized by allowing individual workers to opt out of any union membership or financial requirements. Right-to-work proponents, however, argue that these laws uphold the civil right of Americans to work without being forced to pay union membership dues or agency fees in order to continue working.

In order to understand the role of economic analysis in the RTW debate, it is important to understand the main arguments marshaled by both supporters and opponents of RTW laws. The primary argument of opponents is that workers benefit from union representation, and that therefore they should be required to pay the cost of this representation. Unions argue that RTW laws create "free riders," employees who receive the benefits of a bargaining contract while escaping any financial obligation to reimburse the union for the costs of collective bargaining.

To assess the merits of this claim, however, one must understand the nature of compulsory unionism as it relates to the rights and duties of workers covered by a collective bargaining contract. Most important is the fact that federal law grants unions "exclusive representation" privileges. This means that once a union is "recognized" (i.e., voted in by a majority of employees) it has the sole right to speak for the entire group of employees and negotiate on its behalf. Individual employee negotiations are prohibited. This is true even when individuals have neither voted for a union nor desire union representation. A right-to-work law does not affect this union privilege.

Exclusive representation therefore provides unions with total legal control in employee representation matters. Exclusivity not only makes it illegal for workers to bargain on their own, but also prevents them from hiring another union or agent to deal on their behalf with their employers. Exclusivity normally prevents any redress of a worker's problem without the union being present during an employer-worker meeting.

Supporters of RTW laws claim that because employees are prevented from selecting a competing representative during the union's period of exclusivity-that the union has in essence a monopoly on worker representation-the union is likely to be less accountable to its members. This means that the union may, with relative impunity, provide fewer services to employees or engage in political or social activities having nothing to do with workplace issues. Right-to-work advocates therefore argue that requiring unions to earn the voluntary support of workers is one way to assure that union policies reflect the interests of the represented workers.

One solution to the alleged "free-rider" problem would be to eliminate exclusive representation and permit a union to represent only those employees desiring its representation. If a worker did not join and pay dues, the union would not be required to represent him, and the worker could negotiate his own employment relationship with the employer. Labor union officials, however, consistently refuse to support this alternative. They fought hard for their federal exclusive representation privileges and jealously protect them. They claim that exclusivity permits the union to wield the bargaining power necessary to balance the interests of workers with the interests of management. Unions rely on their status as the sole representative for all bargaining unit workers to justify the payment of forced union dues.

Supporters of RTW laws also take issue with the assumption, implicit in organized labor's "free rider" argument, that union representation benefits all employees in the negotiating unit. Supporters state that workers are often "captive passengers" rather than "free riders." They claim there is always a group of highly skilled or ambitious workers whose ability to get ahead is impeded by union contract restrictions such as rigid seniority clauses, which prevent them from competing for advancement. Employees may also oppose union obligations because of union discrimination, which can result from employees objecting to forced financing of union political activities.

The other major argument used by opponents of RTW laws is that working in a right-to-work state is "the right-to-work for less" or "the right-to-starve." This is shorthand for the idea that enactment of a right-to-work law will weaken the union's ability to protect workers from management exploitation, and therefore reduce the economic gains of workers.

The remainder of this study examines this latter claim, and suggests what economic impact a right-to-work law might have in Michigan. The analysis concludes that RTW laws do not lead to a reduction in economic benefits for workers in RTW states and would not do so in Michigan. In fact, there are signs that RTW laws have produced significant benefits for workers in those states. The debate surrounding RTW principles often centers on emotional rhetoric. This analysis, however, provides empirical evidence that will help both supporters and opponents of right-to-work to assess more accurately the impact of a Michigan RTW law on Michigan workers and their families.