The momentum for right-to-work measures at the local level across the country might be gaining steam: Kentucky’s Warren County, which includes the city of Bowling Green, just passed a local right-to-work ordinance. A 5–1 bipartisan majority of the county legislature voted to make union dues voluntary for private-sector workers.
The measure comes up for a second and final reading next week. If it passes, then unions will lose the ability to compel workers in Warren County (home to a sizeable GM plant) to pay union dues — at least until the inevitable court challenge.
The National Labor Relations Act, which largely set the (favorable) ground rules for unionization in America, clearly permits states to pass right-to-work laws. Legal scholars have debated for decades whether it also allows local governments to do so. A 1957 Stanford Law Review article started the debate; since then most but not all scholars have concluded it does.
The Supreme Court has never decided this issue. Only a handful of lower courts have considered it, reaching contradictory conclusions. My colleague Andrew Kloster and I summarized the legal issues involved in a recent report. Warren County has good arguments for its authority to do this, including the fact Kentucky state law expressly allows counties to pass economic development and commercial regulations — so long as they do not contravene state law, which this does not.
Workers will win a huge victory if the courts uphold local right-to-work ordinances. Unions in non-right-to-work states can take their members’ support for granted: The workers must pay dues or get fired, and unions don’t have to earn dues to collect them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 57 percent of union members’ believe they do not get enough value for the dues they pay.
Consider United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2164, which represents workers at the Corvette plant in Bowling Green. Federal financial disclosure reports show it spends just 2 percent of its $560,000 annual budget on “representational activities.” Yet every worker in that plant must pay Local 2164’s dues. Even some UAW officers admit this hurts workers. Gary Casteel, the UAW’s southern-region director, told reporters earlier this year:
This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right to work hurts unions. To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, “If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong,” versus ”If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.” I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.
Thanks to today’s vote, Local 2164’s members may get a choice about where their money goes. This freedom will also probably bring them better services.
— James Sherk is the senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis.