Union bosses often try to portray right-to-work laws — which allow workers to decline or opt out of union membership — as a direct attack on unionization itself, arguing that supporters of employee freedom secretly wish to see workers enslaved under a harsh and punitive employment system.
The truth is, if right-to-work supporters were actually trying to destroy unions, they’re going about it all wrong. In fact, unions and their workers tend to be better off in right-to-work states.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report last year that demonstrated this very phenomenon. The Bureau noted, citing 2015 statistics, that the then 25 right-to-work states saw larger union membership increases than non-right-to-work states by almost 35,000 members. That was despite the fact that non-right-work states had substantially larger worker populations to begin with.
Even more telling than the raw data regarding union membership, is the attitude of workers in right-to-work states. Simply put, they tend to be just as happy, if not happier, with their working conditions than their non-right-to-work counterparts, according to a new study conducted for National Employee Freedom Week.
And it’s not hard to see why.
When members are free to decline union membership, union chiefs are suddenly subjected to the same market forces that service providers in all other aspects of the marketplace face. They must prove to their customers — in this case, potential union members — that joining the union is worth the price of union dues.
In other words, when workers are free to leave an inadequate or unresponsive union, labor leaders must be more attentive and responsive to the needs of workers. Otherwise, members will leave.
It stands to reason that, faced with the prospect of members departing, unions either put more resources into providing value for the dues their members pay or watch more and more members walk.
Basically, right-to-work laws encourage better unions by empowering workers with choice.
Of course, despite the benefit to workers and overall union membership, many union bosses continue to staunchly oppose laws that respect workers’ right to choose. And it’s not that difficult to see possible reasons why.
First, private-sector union membership has been spiraling downward for many decades — suggesting that workers may no longer believe they receive the “value” they once believed came from collective bargaining in general.
Also, they may recognize that certain union leaders simply see their own political power as far more important than members’ concerns. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, for example, spent $20 million more on political activity in 2016 than it did actually representing workers — a fact that certainly brings into question whether or not worker representation is actually a major focus.
Under both of these circumstances, it becomes obvious that, for many labor bosses, forcing workers to fork over millions of dollars in annual dues — regardless of how those workers feel about union performance — is decidedly preferential to earning the respect and loyalty of members the “old fashioned” way.
Nevertheless, some union leaders are recognizing that forced unionization is, in large part, doing more harm than good for workers and, ultimately, union membership more broadly.
Gary Casteel, who was once in charge of organizing southern auto plants, pointed out in 2014 that workers in right-to-work states appreciate their freedom to choose, and are therefore less hostile to unions in the first place.
“This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right-to-work hurts unions,” he said. “If I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not — I don’t even like the way that sounds.”
And that’s just the point: workers deserve the right to choose whether or not they pay a union for representation.
To some unions, however, workers are seen as little more than walking membership dues — just waiting to be cashed.
For these labor bosses, policies that empower workers to decide whether or not unions get a piece of their paycheck is apparently a terrifying thought.
The fact that such bosses aren’t willing to earn the membership of workers says everything you need to know about how much value they are actually providing.
Michael Schaus is communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.