(Editor's note: This is an updated version of commentary originally written by Paul Kersey and Thomas Washburne and posted June 28, 2007.)

ESSENTIALS

What exactly is a right-to-work law?

"Right-to-Work" is a state law that prohibits employers and unions from requiring an employee to pay dues or fees to a union in order to keep his or her job. Currently, 22 states have right-to-work laws. While right-to-work laws do NOT allow individual workers to negotiate their own contracts, they do protect a worker from having to involuntarily support a union.

I don’t know a thing about labor law — where does Right-to-Work fit in?

Labor law provides that whenever at least 50 percent of a workforce supports a union, all employees become represented by a union. The union then negotiates a contract that controls the relationship between the employer and the employees. Unless there is a state right-to-work law in place, these contracts may, and almost without exception do, require that every employee pay either dues or fees to the union or they will be fired — even those employees who oppose the union. In states with a right-to-work law, no employee can be fired for refusing to pay dues or fees to a labor union.

What is a "free rider?"

A so-called "free rider" is the term that unions use to describe a person who is covered by a union contract but does not pay dues or fees to the union for the union’s efforts in securing or administering the contract. Unions contend that free riders benefit unfairly because they do not pay for the benefits a union provides.

Aren’t free riders a problem?

Not necessarily. The real problem is labor law that leaves employees in a position where they are represented by a union they do not want. A union that provides valuable service in contract negotiating, even in right-to-work states, should have little problem earning the loyalty and dues of a vast majority of employees. 

What are Beck Rights?

"Beck Rights" refer to rights declared in a U.S. Supreme Court case, Communications Workers of America v. Beck. Under Beck, an employee should be able to limit his or her payment to the union to his or her share of the costs of representation. The principle behind Beck is that workers should not be forced to pay for union lobbying or political work unrelated to the employer/employee relationship.

Why isn’t Beck enough?

Even in exercising Beck rights, an employee is still obligated to pay a union for services that the employee does not want. In addition, Beck rights have proven difficult to secure, as the union controls all the records needed to determine what employees should pay. Getting an accurate accounting often requires lengthy litigation.

Can’t workers get rid of a union that’s doing a bad job?

That’s easier said than done. Once a union is certified, it is difficult for employees to remove it. Decertification elections must wait until a contract expires and because of forced dues and fees, unions have large amounts of funds to fight attempts to remove them. This is one reason why most employees in unionized firms have NEVER actually voted in an election to certify the union that represents them. The union is simply entrenched and therefore has the ability to act in a manner that may be more beneficial to union leaders than to union members. Union officials in right-to-work states know that if they lose touch with their members, those members may simply start withholding dues and fees. This keeps the union more immediately accountable to the workers it represents.

But don't workers benefit from having a union? Shouldn't they be willing to pay for it?

It's not that simple. A union can hurt workers too. When a young worker is laid off or passed over for a promotion because of seniority, does he really benefit from the union contract? An ineffective or unwise union can cost workers dearly. It's naive to assume that all workers come out ahead from union representation. And once you account for that, the whole case against right-to-work basically evaporates.

What has changed that makes right-to-work an issue now?

Michigan is in an economic crisis. Between 2002 and 2010 the state lost 14 percent of its jobs. States with RTW have proven attractive to companies desiring to locate in an area, and Michigan workers could really use the jobs those companies might provide. 

WORKPLACE

What would change at my workplace?

Nothing would change in your workplace immediately. With a right-to-work law, the union still negotiates employee contracts on behalf of all employees and represents them if they have grievances. Over the longer term, you may find that the union is more attentive to your concerns.

What happens to collective bargaining agreements?

Collective bargaining agreements would remain in effect and unchanged. Depending on the effective date of a right-to-work law, you may gain the legal right to cease paying union dues immediately, or that may take effect once your current agreement runs out. Either way the rest of the contract will remain in effect.

What happens if I have a grievance?

Labor law provides that a union certified to represent employees has a duty to fairly represent all employees, regardless of whether they pay fees or dues.

What will happen to my wages?

Right-to-work laws do not affect compensation. Your contract will remain in effect. Over the long term, incomes rise faster in right-to-work states, and cost of living tends to be lower as well, meaning your ability to buy the things you need and want is likely to be higher in a right-to-work state.

What will happen to my benefits?

Right-to-work laws do not affect benefits.

What would happen to safety in the workplace?

Whatever safety rules are in your contract will remain in effect, along with all state, federal and local worker safety laws.

 

ECONOMY

Why do businesses support right-to-work laws?

Right-to-work laws make unions more immediately accountable to their members so that they are more focused on basic workplace issues and less likely to make unreasonable demands. Businesses in right-to-work states tend to be more productive — without shortchanging workers — and this gives them a competitive advantage.

Do right-to-work laws create jobs?

Right-to-work laws are a proven job creator. For decades unemployment rates have consistently been lower in right-to-work states. But unemployment rates only tell half the story -- unemployment rates can be thrown off as workers give up on finding jobs or move from state to state looking for work. In terms of job creation, however, right-to-work states have a big advantage. Between 2002 and 2010 the average right-to-work state increased payrolls by 3 percent compared to a loss of 3 percent for non-right-to-work states.

That's not to say that right-to-work states never have slumps; right-to-work didn't prevent Louisiana and Mississippi from losing jobs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But over the long haul it's not even close: right-to-work states create more jobs than non-right-to-work states like Michigan.

Don’t workers in right-to-work states earn less?

After accounting for taxes and the cost of living, workers actually have higher real pay in right-to-work states. Incomes are growing faster in right-to-work states too. In fact, according to the US Census most right-to-work states had higher per capita disposable incomes than Michigan in 2010.

Will a right-to-work law make Michigan prosperous by itself?

It will certainly help. Michigan’s economy is also burdened by high business taxes and a difficult regulatory climate. But right-to-work will immediately make the state more attractive to employers.

 

UNIONS

Won’t this weaken unions?

That depends on what you think a strong union looks like. If your idea of a strong union is one that looks out for its member’s best interests, a right-to-work law could actually make unions stronger.

Why are union officials so vehemently opposed to right-to-work measures?

Right-to-work protections for employees renders unions more accountable to their members. Simply put, when a union member becomes convinced that a union is not acting in the member’s interest, that member can choose to resign his or her membership and refuse to pay dues or fees. Union leaders enjoy their power and influence on a whole host of issues that may or may not be related to the welfare of employees and see right-to-work laws as a threat to their ability to act with very little accountability.

Why should I care what employers think?

Employers create jobs. Michigan desperately needs jobs. We must make Michigan as inviting as we can. Not caring what employers think also causes good jobs to migrate to other states where employers are highly valued.

Are right-to-work laws anti-union?

Not really, although union officials like to argue that they are. Even with right-to-work laws, unions collectively bargain for all the employees and therefore enjoy the very same leverage they have in non-right-to-work states. The only difference is that unions in right-to-work states are more directly accountable to the employees they represent.

Will unions have what they need to be effective?

If a union represents employees well and acts reasonably on other matters, there is no reason to believe that the workers it represents would refuse to support it, especially in a state like Michigan with a long tradition of union support. The Union Membership and Coverage Database indicates that at least 75 percent of workers who are covered by a union contract voluntarily join and pay dues.

Aren’t unions already losing influence anyway?

Whether unions have lost influence is a matter of debate. However, right-to-work laws are not about limiting union influence. It is about fairness to employees who are represented by a union that they do not desire and have had forced upon them. It is also about union accountability to its membership.

Why are unions losing members?

The protections provided by law to employees have seen significant evolution since the 1930s when the laws permitting compulsory unionism were passed. For example, federal employment discrimination statutes now prohibit employment decisions based on race, age, gender, religion or national origin. Workers compensation statutes provide for clarity in compensation for job related injuries. Accordingly, many Americans simply do not see the need for a union and would rather negotiate their own terms of employment with their employers. Many others see unions as taking positions on issues that are not related to their employment with which they disagree, either politically or morally.

Wouldn’t a right-to-work law just mean that workers lose their voice in the workplace?

Even in right-to-work states, a union still negotiates the contract that defines the relationship between all employees and the employer. As such, the employer has the same motivation to work with a union as it does absent a right-to-work law. The only voice that is lost a union voice that union members and employees cannot support and choose to silence by withholding their union dues or fees. In this sense, RTW actually gives employees a stronger voice.

Wouldn’t a right-to-work law just mean that workers lose their voice in government?

The only voice that is lost in states with right–to-work is the union voice that is so far out of the mainstream that the union’s own members refuse to support it. This is not a worker's voice and workers should not be obligated to support it.

Are you saying that unions are bad for the economy?

If employees choose to voluntarily unite to bargain collectively with an employer, then an economy benefits from this free choice of individuals. An economy suffers, however, where individuals are compelled to become union members or fee payers to a labor organization that they do not believe serves their interest. The impact of this compulsion is magnified by laws allowing for mandatory dues or fees in support of an unwanted or unaccountable union.