Politics & Policy

Working On Rights

A look at the "Right to Work" movement.

This year the National Right to Work Committee celebrates its 50th anniversary working for the American laborer. To commemorate the occasion, George Leef, executive director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education in Raleigh, North Carolina, has written Free Choice for Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movement. NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez had a Labor Day chat with Leef a little about the history and the current state of the American worker.

National Review Online: How does U.S. law hurt the American worker?

George Leef: U.S. labor law hurts American workers by making union representation a matter of collective decision rather than an individual choice, and then making that decision binding indefinitely on the employees in the governmentally determined “bargaining unit.” Once in power, union officials do not have a voluntary relationship with those whom they officially (and exclusively) represent. Workers are not free to simply drop out if they conclude that the union officials aren’t doing much good for them, aren’t forthcoming about the way they spend dues money, are pursuing their own agendas, and so on. If unions had to operate under the same laws as other private associations, they would have to be far more accountable and responsible to their members and therefore would provide them with better service.

NRO: What exactly is the “Right to Work” movement?

Leef: The Right to Work movement is the label that has stuck to the ideas that union membership should be a matter of individual choice and that labor unions should not enjoy special powers and privileges under the law. The National Right to Work Committee has always followed the motto “Americans should be free to, but never compelled to, join unions.” The sole objective of the diverse people who have supported Right to Work is to end the evil of forced unionism.

NRO: Doesn’t most union criticism fall into accusations of anti-unionism and quickly slip into the critic being anti-Mom and apple pie? Is there anyway around that?

Leef: There are some critics of labor unions who can be readily portrayed as mere bashers of workers or mouthpieces for Big Business. The right approach to take is not to attack unions per se. There is no more reason to regard a labor union as necessarily bad than to regard any other voluntary association of people as necessarily bad. Rather, critics who favor freedom and the rule of law need to concentrate on the extraordinary legal powers conferred upon labor-union officials by the National Labor Relations Act and other federal and state laws. Those of us who believe in freedom don’t want to get rid of unions. We simply want to make them have to respect the rights of everyone else–especially the right to say “No.”

NRO: How prevalent is union violence really? Wouldn’t we hear about it more if it were really a big deal?

Leef: It’s hard to tell how prevalent union violence is. Even at its worst, such as the shootings during the coal strikes in the 1990s, union violence doesn’t get much attention in the media. Moreover, a lot of union violence is more of an intimidating nature, like the severed cow’s head placed on the hood of the car of a woman who chose to work during a strike. For anyone who is threatened or harmed by union enforcers, the violence is a big deal. Unfortunately, the law often fails to bring the culprits to justice.

NRO: Are all union bosses Democrats?

Leef: No, not all union bosses are Democrats. Some are too far left for the Democrats. The problem, though, isn’t their political affiliation, but their philosophy that they should be able to compel workers who don’t want their services to accept and pay for them anyway.

NRO: Are all union critics Republicans?

Leef: No, not all union critics are Republicans. There are libertarians, independents, and perhaps still a few Democrats who on principle don’t like the way unions operate. It’s also true that some Republicans seem quite content with the extent of union power.

NRO: Do we have any idea how many union members disagreed with their unions’ political choices last election cycle?

Leef: Roughly 40 percent didn’t go along with the emphatic desires of “their” union officials that they should pull the Democratic lever. Even if it were only one percent, that would still be objectionable. As Thomas Jefferson said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves in is sinful and tyrannical.” Political contributions, like unionism itself, should be a matter of individual choice.

NRO: Do people know their Beck rights?

Leef: For the most part, people don’t know their rights under the Beck decision, which said that agency-fee workers (that is, people who have to accept union representation, but choose not to be official members, as the Supreme Court has ruled is their right) can only be required to pay for their share of the cost of union activities that are directly germane to collective bargaining. “Big Labor” certainly doesn’t try to inform workers of any of their rights that union officials would rather they didn’t know about. Late in his term, Bush 41 issued an Executive Order requiring that workers on federal projects be notified of their Beck rights, but one of Bill Clinton’s first official acts was to rescind that order. And to make matters worse, even when workers try to exercise their rights, they are usually met with union stonewalling and flagrant deceit, such as saying that only one percent of the union’s expenditures went for politics. Then, the only recourse for the aggrieved worker is to complain to the National Labor Relations Board, which has a history of indifference to Beck cases. In my book, I mention one case in which the workers had their Beck case ignored for ten years.

NRO: What are the states doing to protect workers from Union corruption and how far can a state-strategy go?

Leef: Sadly, the states can do little in the area of labor relations, owing to the federal preemption doctrine. Some have tried to rein in union political expenditures with what are called “Paycheck Protection” laws. The difficulty with that approach is that it’s bureaucratic in nature, relying on state officials to try to enforce the law. Union officials have been pretty clever at evading the law even when state officials have wanted to enforce it.

NRO: How many cases is National Right to Work normally working on?

Leef: The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation usually has around 300 cases in play at any one time. There are far more instances where workers seek help in dealing with union violations of their rights, but with its resources, the Foundation has to choose only the most egregious ones.

NRO: 11. Would a Monsignor Higgins type be hanging with National Right to Work?

Leef: Anyone who can see the fundamental wrong in forced association would hang with Right to Work.

NRO: Will a John Roberts on the Supreme Court make a difference to American workers?

Leef: Possibly so. From what I can discern of his philosophy, it seems that he would be skeptical of the argument that workers must be “lashed to the mast” (as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich put it) in the interests of union solidarity. Perhaps, if such a case arose, he would be sympathetic to the argument that the freedom to represent one’s own interest in employment matters–which the exclusive representation provision in the National Labor Relations Act stamps out–is a fundamental right that the government can’t take away.

NRO: If there’s one message every American gets this Labor Day, what would you like it to be?

Leef: That labor unions are fine, provided that they have to abide by the same legal rules as all other private associations. The problem is that they don’t.


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