A young teacher reads about a job opening at a local school.
She applies, completes an interview and is told she will be hired. But there is
a catch. In order to have the job, she must pay a certain percentage of her
wages to an organization that promotes views different from her own – many of
which are on issues entirely removed from those affecting her job. Nearly half
of the people working at the school share her opinion of the organization, but
the law states that the tribute must be paid by everyone who works there. To
make matters worse, every public school in the district is affiliated with this
Consider another scenario: A long-time employee of a
manufacturer discovers that just over half of his coworkers have decided to
support a new organization. Individual dues to this group are several hundred
dollars per year, and its agenda runs counter to his own beliefs. To make
matters worse, he likes his employer and has always been treated fairly. He is
not alone. But that’s too bad; the law compels him to pay the fees and allow the
organization to represent him. He must pay the fees or find another job,
forgoing years of accumulated goodwill and benefits.
What nation would require people to contribute to or join an
organization as a requirement of certain jobs? Cuba? The People’s Republic of
China? No, this infringement on the right of free association takes place right
here in the United States.
Today, 12.5 percent of American workers are forced by law to
negotiate through a union. Yet few Americans understand just how a union
operates or how it achieves its position. This is unfortunate, for if more
freedom-loving Americans were aware of this situation, they might champion the
rights of those whose liberty is being trampled.
Federal labor law, which is mirrored by Michigan law, was
established in the midst of the Great Depression and has at its core radical
provisions that were enacted as a response to difficult times. The law
stipulates that if only 30 percent of workers in a firm publicly call for union
representation, they are entitled to a secret ballot election to decide whether
to certify a union. If more than 50 percent vote in favor of certification, the
entire group of employees becomes bound to union representation. Dues must be
paid to the union, and people can be fired for refusing to comply.
It is not difficult to see how federal and state labor law
came into being. Times were tough and politicians were eager to try almost
anything to restore economic prosperity. But in the decades since, and in light
of the fact that there is now a body of state and federal laws protecting
workers in everything from discrimination to reasonable pay periods, it is hard
to see the benefit of compelled union representation for workers.
Indeed, our principles as Americans demand that we ask why
and how it is that in the land of the free an employee can be compelled as a
condition of employment to pay fees to a union they determine they don’t want or
One answer is that most unions are historical vestiges. They
have been in existence for decades and the law makes it difficult to decertify
them. A decertification election can only be held when a negotiated bargaining
agreement has expired. If the union files an unfair labor practice charge
against an employer, this too can delay decertification. Consequently, most
union members have never voted to certify the union to which they pay dues or
Secondly, the unions are entrenched. Organized labor is big
business. For decades, union bosses — supported by forced unionization — have
collected fees from members and built up huge cash reserves, as well as a number
of individuals with vested interests in the union’s continued existence. As
such, employees seeking to decertify a union can simply be overwhelmed by a
union’s economic might.
Fortunately, the federal judiciary has noted the anti-freedom
aspects of this system. The U.S. Supreme Court has confirmed in several cases
that the federal Constitution prohibits forced membership, thereby allowing an
employee to resign. However, employees who refuse to join a union may still be
required to become a "fee payer." A fee payer, while not a union member, must
pay an agency fee to the union for representing his or her interests in contract
negotiations. This fee is substantial, and often constitutes an amount almost as
large as the full union membership dues.
Even so, acquiring fee-payer status is no easy feat. Peer
pressure on reluctant union members can be intense. Resigning from the union is
also procedurally difficult. For example, teachers who belong to the Michigan
Education Association can only resign from their union during the month of
August. Such withdrawal "windows" have been upheld in Michigan as a reasonable
The statistics bear out the difficulty of becoming a fee
payer. With 157,000 members, the MEA recently reported that it has only 683 fee
Like the federal courts, the U.S. Congress has set some
boundaries on federal labor law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
prohibits union membership in situations where it conflicts with an employee’s
religious beliefs. But even in these cases the employee is usually required to
surrender an amount equivalent to dues to a charity approved by the employee and
Michigan has also attempted to limit some of the more
egregious aspects of American labor law. In 1994, the Michigan Legislature
enacted several amendments to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. These changes,
known as "paycheck protection," were designed to prohibit automatic employee
contributions to a labor organization’s political activities. While the
amendments covered involuntary political contributions, it did not address the
full range of non-workplace related expenditures, or provide the kind of
transparency necessary for an employee to discover the full range of
expenditures being funded by the dues.
Today’s unions were constructed in a bygone era, and the
collectivist ideologies that were their underpinning have been widely
discredited both in theory and in practice. The American ideal of individual
liberty and the realities of the 21st century global marketplace call for an
overhaul of the compulsory aspects of the union system.
There are several options:
Establish Michigan as a "right to work" state. Federal law
already allows for the state Legislature to prohibit the forced payment of fees
to unions. Twenty-two states have protected workers from being compelled to make
such coerced contributions. In cases where they desire it, workers should also
be permitted to negotiate their own terms of employment directly with employers.
Require regular certification elections, regardless of
bargaining status. Employees should be permitted to decertify their union any
time they see fit. Annual elections would be more democratic than perpetual
terms of union authority.
Establish union-free zones. Where a particular industry is in
financial trouble — facing bankruptcy, for example — companies could be allowed
to operate without a collective union presence for a fixed period of time.
Move to a system of voluntary unionism. It is time for
Michigan workers to throw off the shackles of a labor system that diminishes the
value of the individual. Employees should be free to choose whether they want
union representation, or would rather negotiate directly with their employer.
From its very foundation, America deemed liberty to be
paramount. This respect for the individual and his or her ability to make
independent choices has helped create the greatest economic engine on earth.
America’s secret collectivism — set forth in laws designed to entrench forced
unionism — must be brought to light and reformed.
W. Washburne is director of labor policy for 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.