... requiring unions to earn the voluntary support of workers is one way to assure that union policies reflect the interests of the represented workers.
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
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.