The Corner

Unions and the Facts on Right to Work

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan once quipped, “but they are not entitled to their own facts.” That especially applies to the right-to-work debate now underway in Michigan. The chief union argument against right-to-work is untrue. 

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives unions the power to act as the “exclusive representatives” of all workers at a unionized company. That means a company cannot negotiate with individual employees, and vice versa. All negotiations must go through the union.

This means unions can force individual workers to accept unfavorable terms. That is how unions get “union security” clauses that require employers to fire employees who do not pay union dues. Few workers would voluntarily sign up to get fired. Because their union “exclusively represents” them, they have no choice but to join a union and pay union dues.

Right-to-work laws prohibit unions from including these “union security” provisions in a contract. In right-to-work states, unions cannot force workers to pay dues or lose their job (hence the name “right to work”).

Unions and their supporters argue that this unfairly forces them to represent workers who do not pay their share of collective-bargaining costs. They argue that right to work allows workers to enjoy the benefits of a union contract without paying for it. As Michigan state representative Tim Greimel told the Detroit News, “This really is not about so-called right to work or so-called freedom to work, it’s about freedom to freeload.”

That would be a fair point, if it were true. But it is not. The NLRA does not require unions to bargain as exclusive representatives. It enables them to do so — an important difference. Unions may bargain on behalf of every worker in the company. But the Supreme Court has ruled that the NLRA’s protections are “not limited to labor organizations which are entitled to recognition as exclusive bargaining agents of employees . . . ‘Members only’ contracts have long been recognized” (Retail Clerks v. Lion Dry Goods, 1962). Unions can negotiate contracts that apply only to dues-paying members and exclude non-dues-paying members. Their argument against right to work is untrue.

In fairness, most union supporters do not know this. Unions almost never negotiate members-only contracts, because union contracts benefit some workers at the expense of others. Consider seniority-based layoffs. They guarantee job security for senior workers by putting new hires first on the chopping block. A members-only seniority system would rapidly break down, because junior workers would simply opt out. That would put more senior workers’ jobs on the line, and they would also opt out.

Unions want to force workers they disadvantage to accept their contract. The law gives them that power. The law should not force those same workers to pay for the privilege.

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