When the Teamsters Union came knocking, Michael Romanchock refused to pony up the dues the union demanded. After all, he had worked nine months at his jobsite—a Pepsi bottling plant in Ebensburg, Pennsylvania—and didn’t even know it was unionized. Why pay for services you cannot notice?
This May, union officials threatened to have him fired if he didn’t pay the dues, which average $600 a year. Romanchock wouldn’t budge, and on July 1, the Teamsters had him canned.
Were Pennsylvania a right-to-work state, Romanchock would never have gone through this ordeal. But only twenty-four states have those employee-protection statutes. Fortunately, a new wave of “right-to-work” statutes may be on the way—not from the feds, not from the states, but at the local level.
In most states, workers at unionized workplaces must pay union dues to hold their jobs. Unions use some of those dues to bargain on behalf of their members. But they also use dues to finance causes many of their members oppose.
For example, unions have spent millions to help re-elect Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a professed opponent of same-sex marriage. Union members who support same-sex marriage might not want to support him. The Service Employees International Union and the United Auto Workers gave tens of thousands to Planned Parenthood, America’s largest abortion provider. Union members who consider abortion the taking of innocent life might object to funding it.
Theoretically, workers can opt out of the political portion of these dues; in practice, unions make it very difficult. The Teamsters did not even tell Romanchock how much they spent on political activities, much less that he could decline to fund it. They simply had him fired for not paying full dues.
Mandatory dues hurt workers doubly. It forces them to pay for representation and political activities they may not want. It also makes unions less responsive to their interests. With mandatory dues, unions do not have to earn workers’ support—they are compelled to provide it. Not surprisingly, unions charge higher dues and pay their officers higher salaries when workers have no choice but to pay.
Right-to-work laws make union dues voluntary, thereby forcing unions to work harder to earn workers’ support. When Wisconsin passed right-to-work for most government employees, unions responded by lowering dues. Even some union organizers consider right-to-work a good thing. Gary Casteel, southern organizing director for the United Auto Workers, explained that in right-to-work states: “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' . . . if you don't think the system's earning its keep, then you don't have to pay."
Right-to-work laws can also boost local economies. Economic development consultants report that most companies prefer to locate new plants in areas with right-to-work laws. It was no accident that the foreign “transplant” automakers built almost all their U.S. plants in right-to-work states. Or that Boeing located its new assembly line in right-to-work South Carolina.
Gallup polling finds that Americans support right-to-work by a three-to-one margin. Overwhelming majorities of those self-identifying as Democrats, Republicans or Independents believe workers should not get fired for not paying union dues. But union bosses disagree. They fight right-to-work tooth and nail. And mandatory dues give them a lot of money to fight with. Unions are spending $300 million this year to defeat five governors who crossed them.
Such spending—and the clout that comes with it—has successfully blocked right-to-work initiatives in most states. Union opposition has kept right-to-work from even coming to a vote in the Pennsylvania legislature. This has left millions of workers like Michael Romanchock saddled with forced dues.
Thankfully, workers may soon have a new option for getting out from under such requirements. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) explicitly allows states to forbid forced dues. And as my colleague Andrew Kloster and I point out in a recent piece, cities and counties have a strong legal foundation for arguing this authorization also encompasses local right-to-work ordinances—at least for private-sector workers.
Some state and local politicians have begun proposing exactly this approach. Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner has suggested letting counties pass their own right-to-work laws. Daniel Harrop, the Republican candidate for mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has proposed a municipal right-to-work law for his city. Other cities and counties may follow soon.
Local right-to-work ordinances would allow more conservative counties to bypass union opposition that stymies statewide efforts. While President Obama carried Pennsylvania, Mitt Romney handily carried the county containing Ebensburg. A county ordinance could have protected Romanchock’s job.
Unions would likely file immediate court challenges to such ordinances. But the Supreme Court has already ruled that Congress did not intend the NLRA to override laws regulating forced dues. Further, the Court frequently interprets “state” laws as implicitly including local ordinances. This especially applies to charter cities and counties with delegated legislative authority. Although the Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on this issue, cities would have a good legal case.
Local right-to-work laws could benefit millions of workers—giving them control over more of their earnings and how it is spent. They would also create more jobs. Counties in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and other non-right-to-work states could compete for new investment on a level playing field with southern states. Unions might not like this, but the unemployed and workers like Michael Romanchock certainly would.
Based on calculations from their federal financial disclosure filings, Teamsters Local 110 collected $819,000 in dues from 1,382 members in 2013—an average of $592 per member.
- James Sherk is a Senior Policy Analyst in Labor Economics for the Center for Data Analysis at the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in The National Interest