West Virginia seems almost certain to soon become American’s 26th right-to-work state. Republicans took control of both houses of the West Virginia legislature in 2014. State legislative leaders have made passing right-to-work this year a top priority. It only takes a simple majority to override a veto in West Virginia, so final passage seems assured. The state senate passed right-to-work last Thursday, and the house seems set to follow suit.
Unions object that this is a plot to destroy unions. But oddly enough, Right-to-work laws say nothing about prohibiting collective bargaining. They only prevent workers from being forced to pay union dues. Without right-to-work, union contracts make paying union dues a condition of employment. The National Labor Relations Act prevents dissatisfied workers from negotiating different terms for themselves.
This coercion offends most Americans. Even Americans who view labor unions favorably believe supporting them should be voluntary. Polling shows West Virginians support right-to-work by a 60-to-23-percent margin. Right-to-work would not poll nearly so favorably in West Virginia if it actually destroyed organized labor. It does not. It does force unions to earn their members’ support instead of taking it for granted.
That latter point probably weighs heavily on West Virginians. The Obama administration’s “war on coal” has devastated the state’s economy. But the United Mine Workers endorsed the Obama in 2008, despite knowing full well he supported anti-coal policies. Nonetheless, mine workers disgusted with their unions’ actions must still pay union dues. If workers had the ability to opt out, the union would be much more attentive to their views.
Even top union executives understand this. As Gary Casteel, secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, explained to the Washington Post:
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.
To which the West Virginia legislature seems set to say: “Quite so.”