In December 2012, union-label Michigan U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D) spoke for many politicians who share his views on labor policy when he decried the announcement by the GOP governor from his home state, Rick Snyder, that he would sign Right to Work legislation then on the way to his desk.
Levin insisted that the two Right to Work measures that the Michigan Legislature had just adopted amounted to “an assault” on employees’ right to have a union negotiate their terms of employment with business owners or managers, and on employees’ right to ensure that “all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them.”
Levin’s statement was a good characteristic expression of the views of compulsory-unionism advocates in Congress and elsewhere, but it ignored a couple of very salient points.
First of all, the reason that federal law authorizes a union monopoly-bargaining agent to negotiate the pay, benefits and working conditions of union members and nonmembers alike is because union bosses insisted on being granted this privilege when the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was first adopted in 1935. Moreover, nearly eight decades later, union officials continue to oppose any meaningful curtailment in the scope of their monopoly-bargaining power. The NLRA as interpreted by the courts actually does permit union bosses to negotiate contracts for their members only, but union-“represented” employees who wish to negotiate contracts on their own behalf may not do so without Big Labor’s permission, which is only rarely granted.
Another key point, explicitly made by eminent employee-employer relations scholar Clyde Summers (since deceased) in a 1995 review article for the Comparative Labor Law Journal, is that under monopoly bargaining workers who don’t want a union are often actually made worse off than they were before.
Summers elaborated: “Full-timers may bargain to limit the jobs of part-timers, seniority provisions may disadvantage younger workers, and wage increases of the low skilled may be at the expense of the high skilled.”
Based just on the examples cited by Summers, one may very conservatively assume that 20% of the private-sector employees subject to “exclusive” union representation in any given bargaining unit are, on the whole, economically harmed as a consequence.
Yet according to a database maintained by labor economists Barry Hirsch and David MacPherson, in 2013 roughly 84% of unionized private-sector employees in Right to Work states voluntarily joined and paid dues to the union in their workplace.
The fact that 84% of unionized employees were union members hardly means that 84% thought their unions were doing a good job. As top union lawyer Thomas Harris (since deceased) acknowledged more than half a century ago, the very fact that a union wields monopoly power to negotiate an employee’s pay, benefits, and work rules puts that worker under “intense compulsion” to join. Consequently, it is almost certainly more likely that, even in Right to Work states, an employee who doesn’t think the union in his workplace is doing a good job will nevertheless join, than that an employee who thinks the union is doing a good job will refuse to join.
In short, the supposed “unfairness” of Right to Work laws decried by Sen. Levin and many other politicians of the same ilk has no basis in reality. There really is no reason to think that significant numbers of employees in Right to Work states who benefit from unionization decline to join because they are shortsighted or “cheap,” as Levin seems to assume. Quite the contrary. Even in Right to Work states, it’s very likely more employees pay union dues than benefit from “exclusive” union representation.