Going Further than Right-to-Work to Relieve Labor Leaders’ Burdens

Earlier this week I told you that it looked like Right-to-Work legislation was coming to the Big Labor stronghold of Michigan. And has it ever come quickly!

Some of Wisconsin’s early 2011 scenes played out yesterday at the State Capitol, as protestors thronged and chanted favorites like, “A people united will never be defeated!” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Right-to-Work has got to go!”

News outlets report that Michigan State Police arrested eight people trying to break into legislative chambers as the state senate gave preliminary approval to send the workplace freedom measure on to supportive Governor Rick Snyder. (When similar legislation is introduced here in Colorado in 2013, the reaction almost certainly will be much more quiet… and lethal.)

As the legislative process unfolds in Lansing at a rapid pace, Left-leaning media organs like Think Progress repeat one of Big Labor’s favorite anti-Right-to-Work talking points, descriptively suggesting the measure “effectively undermines union activities by allowing non-union workers to free-ride on union-negotiated contracts.”

The same argument emerged during Colorado’s 2008 debate over a Right-to-Work ballot initiative. United Food and Commercial Workers spokesman Manny Gonzalez was quoted saying Amendment 47 “basically creates a freeloader system, so that people can opt out of union membership, but they still can benefit from the same union services that members can.” Denver Post columnist Al Lewis cleverly rechristened the issue “Right to Shirk.”

Unfortunately, it’s a case of labor leaders protesting too much. Because federal labor law guarantees exclusive representation status, and union leaders lobbied to make it that way. Exclusive representation means once a workplace has been unionized, everyone in the unit is represented by the collectively bargained contract — whether they find it to be in their best interest or not.

Yet what if individual workers could decide not only whether to subsidize the union treasury, but also whether the union contract dictated their terms of employment at all? If the bargaining service union leaders provide is universally beneficial to employees, so much so that passing Right-to-Work creates a bunch of ungrateful “freeloaders,” why must they be compelled to accept the terms of the contract in order to keep working?

Having instead a system of “free agency” likely would see many workers stick securely with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. However, if the service is ineffective, others might band together to negotiate through another agency or even go it alone, based on individual performance. This unorthodox but pro-freedom approach has been tried in New Zealand, as explained in a 2010 report to which I contributed.

Three cheers for Michigan lawmakers: Right-to-Work is certainly a step in the right direction. Yet while also promoting freedom of association and individual rights, a policy of worker free agency would go even further in relieving labor leaders of the “freeloader” burden about which they are wont to complain.

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