On the Framing of ‘Right-to-Work’ Laws

Ezra Klein objects to the framing of ‘right-to-work’ laws:

The term “right-to-work law” is a triumph of framing. Such laws do not, in fact, give you the “right to work.” They give you the right to refuse to pay union dues when you work for a union shop, even though you get the wages the union bargained for, and the benefits the union bargained for, and the grievance process the union bargained for. 

Later on, he writes the following:

The genius of the “right-to-work” laws is that it makes it seem unusual that you have to agree to follow the terms of the contract that your prospective employers has negotiated with his employees. In fact, what’s unusual is that “right-to-work” laws allow you to opt-out of one part of that contract — the part that your fellow employees have negotiated. You still have to follow all the parts your employer added.

I was surprised, however, that Ezra did not mention the notion of “monopoly bargaining,” which Robert VerBruggen described in National Review last year:

It’s not just employers over whom the law grants unions immense power. When a union wins an election, workers who voted against it are forced to accept the union as their “monopoly bargaining” agent, and are forbidden to negotiate their own contracts with the business. Depending on state law and the specific contract, anti-union workers may also have to join the union or pay dues. Right-to-work laws help in this regard, but they do not solve the problem of coercion — and the NLRA banned even these laws until the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. In a right-to-work state, workers at union shops don’t have to pay dues or join the union, but they’re still bound by the union contract even if they do not wish to be. Seen differently, they get to free-ride on union negotiating efforts without paying their fair share.

More recently, Robert noted that unions are not obligated to engage in monopoly bargaining:

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. [Emphasis added]

That is, if unions are troubled by the free-riding that occurs when you refuse to pay union dues “when you work for a union shop, even though you get the wages the union bargained for, and the benefits the union bargained for, and the grievance process the union bargained for,” the union in question could leave the free-riders to bargain for themselves. This tends not to happen, presumably because unions benefit from acting as monopoly bargaining units. But I think Ezra’s framing is not quite right, given that the unions are under no obligation to claim that they represent all workers in a given shop.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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