Unions Object to Preventing ‘Free-loaders’ in Michigan

by James Sherk

Unions have become quite inconsistent in their opposition to Michigan’s new right-to-work law. The legislation, which took effect last week, prevents unions from making their dues a condition of employment. Unions loudly objected that this forces them to subsidize “free loaders.” As one union argued:

Because unions are legally required, even in “Right-to-Work” states, to represent all members equally, free-loading, non-dues paying unionized workers receive the same benefits and services as their dues-paying coworkers.

Other union supporters were even blunter. State representative Tim Greimel contended, “This really is not about so-called right to work or so-called freedom to work, it’s about freedom to freeload.”

It is a fair critique. Why should unions have to provide services to workers who do not pay for them? Under federal labor law, private-sector unions do not have to represent non-members (although they can elect to do so), but government unions in Michigan don’t have that option.

So some Michigan legislators are now proposing an end to “free-loading.” They have drafted legislation to have union contracts only cover union members. Government unions would not represent workers who do not pay dues; instead, non-members would negotiate separately.

Such “members only” contracts are sound policy on many levels. It would prevent the free-loading that unions complain about. Only union members would enjoy the benefits (or costs) of union contracts. It would also give workers more options.

One-size-fits-all collective contracts ignore many individual employees’ preferences. New hires, for example, would rather not have seniority-based layoffs, but because unions insist on them, new employees must live with a seniority system anyways. Permitting individual contracts would allow new hires (or anyone else) to negotiate terms that better suit their needs.

So do Michigan unions want to implement “members only” contracts? No, not a chance. Michigan unions quickly announced that they don’t want non-union employees negotiating for themselves. Unions want to speak for all workers on the job — whether employees want their representation or not.

That gives unions more clout, but it makes their opposition to right-to-work a lot harder to justify. It is one thing to argue against subsidizing free-loaders. It is quite another to argue that workers should be forced to accept unwanted union representation, and then forced to pay for it.

— James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics in the Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis.

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