Like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” for reproductive issues, labor issues have their own winger words, with no legitimate purpose other than to make the speaker easier to label. For example, one man’s “right to work” (RTW) is another man’s “right to work for less” or “right to fire.” We’re seeing that play out well in Michigan, which may soon become the 24th RTW state in the union, and where President Obama took a decidedly anti position on that prospect.
Under this legislation, most workers in Michigan would not be compelled to pay union dues as a condition of employment; police and firefighters are exempted. Proponents argue that this will make state business more competitive, and boost individual worker freedom. Opponents contend that it would undermine union influence, and that the legislative process involved is unfair. Indeed, the measure is attached as a rider to an appropriations bill, and Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI) is expected to sign it after today’s vote in the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature.
I have consistently opposed the practice of using riders to make policy, and this is certainly no exception. By doing this, RTW proponents have demonstrated a fear of challenges not at all unlike that of the unions, who fear challenges to their authority. If they think this is a solid enough idea, they will put it at risk of being overturned by itself, without the cushion of the appropriations bill, then sell it hard and hope for the best. That’s what they can do to level the playing field.
Why does the same go for the unions? Because they worry, rightfully, that giving workers the choice not to join them will mean lower membership and, consequently, lower revenue. Given the fact that these workers would have to pay union dues out of their wages, however high the union may help push them, staying out of it certainly has its temptations. Not to mention the loss of pay that would come from the union telling everyone to walk off the job.
So of course RTW laws have the potential to curb the power of unions. But if they can successfully educate workers about the benefits of joining up, they should have nothing to worry about. For those who are unhappy with the idea of workers benefiting from things the unions have fought for, they might compromise by shutting them out of new benefits, with a non-retroactivity clause for good measure. That would require those workers to put their money where their mouth is in every sense of the word.
RTW provides an opportunity for all workers to receive an education on the pros and cons of union membership. Neither the unions nor the politicians should take that opportunity away with their undemocratic rhetoric and/or procedures. Personally, I’m happy not to be a union member and hope I’ll never have to deal with that in any workplace.