As Mario Loyola and others have noted, Michigan seems poised to enact a right-to-work law, and union supporters — including the president — have been panicking. They’re justified in being worried: Right-to-work laws are a useful step in rolling back the unions’ horrendous National Labor Relations Act (see my lengthy examination of the act here). But these laws shouldn’t make us lose sight of the fact that the NLRA itself is the problem.
Under the NLRA, once a private-sector union has votes from a majority of workers, it has a legal right to represent all workers. (This is often called “monopoly bargaining” power.) In return, union agreements typically require workers to join or pay dues, even if they don’t want to. State right-to-work laws, which have been allowed under the NLRA since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, give workers the right to refuse to join or pay.
The good thing, obviously, is that right-to-work laws eliminate some of the coercion here: A majority of your coworkers no longer can force you to pay dues to an organization you don’t want to be a part of. The problem, however, is that non-members are still covered by the collective-bargaining agreements negotiated by the union. No matter how you look at it, this is a problem: Conservatives are troubled that non-members are not fully free of unions, and liberals are frustrated that non-members are benefiting from union agreements without paying dues.
Given the results of the most recent election, my preferred solution — repealing or seriously reforming the NLRA — is off the table. So, state-by-state right-to-work efforts are about all we can hope for in the short term. But we ought to have larger goals in mind.
UPDATE: I should note this post by James Sherk, in which he points out that, technically speaking, unions are under no obligation to pursue monopoly bargaining. If they wish, they are free to sign up as many members as they can and negotiate on these members’ behalf, without affecting other members. As Sherk also notes, however, this is very rarely the way events unfold in practice — the monopoly-bargaining process I describe above is the way private-sector unionization typically works. Non-members in right-to-work states are compelled to accept the results of union negotiating, or are allowed to freeload off of union efforts, depending on how you see it. Thanks to commenter “sandeepja” for pointing out that our posts seemed to be in tension.