Civil Disagreement: Michigan picks right-to-work law over unions
Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is an occasional feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today they react to the news that Michigan has become the latest state to ban compulsory union membership by passing a "right to work" law.
Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, right-to-work is not my preferred system, but if I were offered the chance, I would vote for it as an increase in personal freedom.
I was in a union for 16 years. I had some benefit from the union contract; I will get a small pension at 65, and without the union I probably wouldn’t have had that. For several years I represented the union as a trustee of the pension fund. I have benefited from unions, but have also seen them defend workers who should have been canned. They are not all good or all bad.
I was required to be in the union, and in the whole 16 years no one ever asked me whether I wanted to be in it. At one point the company and the union negotiated over whether my work group would be in or out, but they didn’t ask us.
On the matter of joining things, I am pro-choice.
In 1988 came the Supreme Court case of Communications Workers v. Beck. This allowed union members to resign, sort of, but they would still have to pay about four-fifths of their dues, relabeled as “agency fees.” I thought it was a crummy choice, and I didn’t take it.
When I joined The Seattle Times in 2000, the labor contract we have allowed management to offer me a choice, and I chose not to be in the union. Under the National Labor Relations Act, I am still officially represented by the union, which makes me a “free rider.” Union people have a point about that. I don’t think unions should be required to offer any benefits to free riders.
Right-to-work gives workers a choice about membership and dues but not representation. I think it should come as a package: membership, dues and representation. Still, right-to-work offers most of the choice an employee would care about.
There are other issues: whether right-to-work helps the economy by attracting investment, whether it lowers average wages, and how much it weakens the political clout of organized labor. My issue is the right to choose.
Lynne Varner replies: Bruce: Hard to believe the home of the United Automobile Workers is now a right-to-work state. That now makes two dozen states. Yikes.
Let's start with the dishonesty in the name, right to work. Becoming a right-to-work state does not automatically confer jobs on anyone or create new jobs. People able to work have always had the right to seek it and perform it.
There's dishonesty in the definition too. Right-to-work laws do not provide freedom. What they provide is a way for workers to benefit from union representation without having to pay for it. Workers who opt out of paying dues can still turn to the union at the first sign of workplace trouble. These free riders pull resources from the unions by taking away their dues, yet they expect full service.
Unions helped create the American middle class and dominant industries, such as aerospace. But this New York Times editorial points to the erosion of the middle class and the simultaneous decline of union clout.
Yes, unions sometimes used their influence, and huge political warchests, in political arenas having little to do with workplace conditions or wages. Politics is a blood sport and depending on the union and the issue, they gave as good as they got.
That may explain the growing lack of sympathy for them now, as well as a reason why Proposal 2, a ballot referendum that would have added labor protections to the Michigan Constitution, was defeated last month.
I don't support right-to-work laws and other efforts to curb union influence. We should all be careful here. Calls for greater fiscal responsibility and returning government to its core functions should take note: states with antidues laws have higher rates of poverty and lower rates of health coverage. The average worker in a right-to-work state earns $1,500 less each year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. "Freeing" businesses by weakening labor doesn't do much good if public coffers are then stretched to provide for an economically poorer community.
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