JURIST – Forum: ‘Right to Work’ in Michigan: Depleting Unions 

As pro-forced unionism academic Richard Rothstein has openly acknowledged, one typical effect of union contracts is "reducing pay of the most productive workers." Image; www.edfunders.org

 

Writing for The Jurist last month, Michigan law professor Susan Bitensky followed a longstanding tradition among apologists for compulsory unionism.  In a commentary bemoaning the December 2012 enactment of a Right to Work law in the Wolverine State (see the link above), Bitensky simply assumes, without making an argument or citing any facts, that union nonmembers subject to “exclusive” (monopoly) union representation in the workplace thereby enjoy “benefits.”

As popular as this assumption is with union officials and their allies in academia, it is far from substantiated.  Moreover, in examining labor-management relations outside the contest of the ongoing debate over state Right to Work laws, which prohibit the firing of employees for refusal to pay dues or fees to an unwanted union, a number of proponents of forced unionism have acknowledged, tacitly or explicitly, that unionization is detrimental to the economic interests of many employees.

Take, for example, Richard Rothstein.  He is a longtime research associate with the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI).  Each year, the officers of a broad spectrum of labor unions funnel millions of dollars from their forced dues-funded treasuries into the EPI, which they obviously regard as an ideological ally.  Yet Rothstein has made no bones about the fact that workers whose productivity is above average typically get paid less when they are unionized.

In a research article for the Summer 1993 edition of The American Prospect, Rothstein explained the phenomenon of “compression of wages,” a phenomenon he applauds as a blow for employee “solidarity”:

In [unionized] firms, wages of lower paid workers are raised above the market rate, with the increase offset . . . [in part] by reducing pay of the most productive workers.  If firms with this practice  are rare, competitors will be able to bid away their best workers.

Rothstein’s understanding of how union contracts work is perfectly standard.  In fact, in the passage cited he is actually summarizing an article coauthored by another prominent pro-forced unionism academic, Laura D’Andrea Tyson.  And both Rothstein and Tyson are simply echoing the views of Harvard economist Richard Freeman, arguably the leading academic apologist for forced unionism in the U.S.  In an article for Industrial & Labor Relations Review (October 1982 edition), Freeman actually commended union officials for being “remarkably successful in removing performance judgments as a factor in determining individual workers’ pay.”

Does Bitensky dissent from the consensus as expressed by Freeman and other major figures in her field that workers who stand to benefit economically if their employer takes their personal performance into account stand to lose if a union contract prevents their employer from doing so?  If she does, she should explain why, rather than pretend the consensus does not exist.

On the other hand, if Bitensky does acknowledge that union contracts normally reduce the pay of “the most productive workers,” then it makes no sense for her to denounce the enactment of the Michigan Right to Work law on the grounds that union nonmembers invariably “benefit” from unionization.

So-called “compression of wages” is just one of a number of ways in which large numbers of employees are economically harmed by union contracts.  To take another example, extensive research has shown that unionized firms, as labor-policy analyst James Sherk noted in a 2009 Backgrounder for the Heritage Foundation, “shed jobs more frequently and expand less frequently than nonunion firms.” Inevitably, that means rank-and-file employees looking for promotion opportunities will find far fewer of them at unionized firms.  And in addition to economic damage, many employees suffer noneconomic, but genuine harm when they are forced to associate with a union whose moral and political values they do not share.

In short, there are multiple sound reasons why an independent-minded employee might consider having a union as his monopoly-bargaining agent to be a detriment, rather than a benefit.  When such an employee exercises his prerogative under a state Right to Work law to refuse to bankroll the union in his workplace, union officials do not lose any revenue to which they are licitly entitled.

There are many problems with Professor Bitensky’s recent commentary for The Jurist, far more problems than can be addressed in a single blog post of manageable length.  But fundamentally the commentary is off-target for one of two reasons.  Either Bitensky falsely assumes all workers benefit from unionization.  Or she believes that unionized workers should be forced to pay union dues or fees, even if they personally are hurt by what the union does.  In either case, her position is untenable.

 

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