‘Members-Only Unions Are Not a Theoretical Construct or Historical Remnant’


An issue brief published early this month by the New York City-based and Big Labor-“friendly” Century Foundation (see the link below to read the whole thing) discusses a labor-relations topic that, as coauthors Moshe Marvit and Leigh Anne Schriever acknowledge up front, is unfamiliar  to many Americans who are otherwise knowledgeable about unions and how they operate in our nation.  The topic is members-only unionism.

To explain what members-only unionism is, Marvit and Schriever cite the example of Local 42 of the United Auto Workers (UAW), a union chartered in July 2014 at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. In the coauthors’ words, Local 42

was formed . . . after the UAW was defeated in “one of the most closely watched unionization votes in decades” [footnote omitted], which many on both sides staked out as a symbol of labor’s prospects in the South. Typically, after facing such an election loss, most union organizers either regroup for another election, or simply walk away. In the case of Local 42, the UAW chose a largely forgotten third option: forming a nonexclusive, members-only union.

Marvit and Schriever continue:

Members-only unions, like the name implies, are unions that comprise only a portion of the employees in a workplace, rather than including all workers in the bargaining unit. Workers who do not wish to be members do not have to join, and in turn, the union does not have to provide non-member employees with any services. In fact, by law, a members-only union can only represent those who have joined, as opposed to representing all employees as in a traditional bargaining unit.

While UAW Local 42 introduced the concept of members-only unionism to many citizens who had never heard of it before, it is far from the only such union operating today.   Marvit, a union lawyer and Century Foundation fellow, and Schriever, who interned at this organization earlier this year, are both obviously enthusiastic proponents of monopoly unionism, but nevertheless contend that their fellow Big Labor partisans should not discount the importance of unions that do not wield monopoly-bargaining privileges:

What is often lost in many of the discussions on workers’ rights is that members-only unions are not a theoretical construct or historical remnant. In fact, beyond UAW Local 42, a variety of public and private-sector locals have operated on a members-only basis for many years, with varying degrees of success. For example, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has approximately 120,000 members in members-only unions spread across Texas, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Virginia.

Like other union-boss allies who tout the benefits of members-only unionism, Marvit and Schriever regard it largely as a means through which union organizers who are having trouble getting their “foot in the door” at a business may ultimately secure monopoly-bargaining power over all of its employees. And they do not claim that the members-only strategy is without pitfalls and difficulties for Big Labor.

However, most of the “obstacles” for members-only unions decried by Marvit and Schriever are a direct result of the fact that, under longstanding court and National Labor Relations Board precedents, they lack one special privilege granted to unions with “exclusive” (monopoly) bargaining privileges by federal labor policy, that is, the power to compel employers to bargain with them.  Commercial law does not endow other individuals or types of organization with the privilege to force unwilling partners to sit down at the bargaining table with them.  Therefore, it is peculiar for union-label lawyers and academics like Marvit and Schriever to suggest that members-only unions are somehow impeded because employers aren’t forced by law to negotiate with them!

Despite this problem and other problems with the Marvit-Schriever analysis I won’t try to address here, the new Century Foundation paper on members-only bargaining is a useful, albeit inadvertent, contribution to the ongoing debate over Right to Work laws and legislation.

For decades, Big Labor and its apologists have cited the putative “fact” that federal labor law and state laws patterned after it “force” union bosses to negotiate contracts covering union members and nonmembers alike as a key reason for their opposition to employees’ Right to Work without being forced to pay union dues or fees.

When Right to Work advocates respond by pointing out that Big Labor actually does have the option of organizing employees into unions on a members-only basis, union propagandists often claim the legal right to do this is only “theoretical.” Sometimes they go so far as to claim that unions that represent their members only in dealings with the employer are actually prohibited by law!

But now Marvit, Schriever, and the Century Foundation, all with impeccable pro-forced unionism credentials, have exposed this shabby excuse for compulsory union dues and fees as completely false.  They are indeed correct in observing that members-only unions are not merely a “theoretical construct or historical remnant,” and that “a variety of public- and private-sector [union] locals have operated on a members-only basis for many years . . . .” It is long past time for forced-unionism proponents to stop pretending otherwise.

Workers who do not wish to be members of United Auto Workers Local 42, chartered in July 2014, “do not have to join, ” and “the union does not have provide non-member employees with any services.” Incredibly, forced-unionism apologists sometimes claim unions like UAW Local 42 are prohibited under federal and state labor laws! Image: Doug Strickland/Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times