March 11, 2015 | Commentary on Labor, Jobs and Labor Policy

Freedom not to choose

My first job as a teenager back in 1976 was working as a blue-suited Andy Frain usher at sporting events at places like Wrigley Field in Chicago. When I took the job, I was required to join the local union and pay dues. My co-workers and I used to endlessly complain that the union was snatching money from our paychecks even though we were only paid the minimum wage. “What has this union ever done for us?” we all raged.

I think about that unpleasant experience a lot in the context of the debate raging in a handful of states over whether to adopt right-to-work (RTW) legislation. On Friday, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed the legislation and will become the 25th state with a right-to-work law when Gov. Scott Walker signs the bill as promised. Wisconsin will join Michigan and Indiana as recent Midwestern, blue-collar states that have adopted this employee rights law.

Unions and the think tanks they fund are in an understandable panic. History shows that when workers aren’t forced to pay union dues and fees, they usually choose not to.

A right-to-work law does not prohibit unions. There are active, powerful unions in right-to-work states. This law simply gives individual workers the freedom to choose whether to financially support a union as a job condition.

Earlier this week, Jared Bernstein of the big labor-backed Center on Budget and Policy Priorities made the bizarre argument in The Washington Post that “there’s no such thing” as “forced unionism” today in America.

He further accused me of lying, writing: “Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation claims that workers in non-RTW states ‘can be compelled to join a union and pay dues at a union shop whether they wish to or not’ or that they ‘can even be forced to pay union dues for partisan political activities with which they don’t agree.’”

Wow, who is twisting facts here? Mr. Bernstein’s claim has a small grain of truth: Workers can no longer be forced to formally join a union in America after the Supreme Court decided in 1963 that was just too much power to bestow on a private organization. But in a non-right-to-work state, if employees do not pay union dues or fees, they can lose their jobs. So to work at a unionized facility in non-RTW states, you must, in effect, join the union by paying up to 100 percent of the dues and living under the collective bargaining agreement.

No payment to the union means no job.

If that isn’t coercion, what is? When a robber sticks a knife in your face and says your money or your life, do you really think you have a choice?

Here is the language of a typical labor United Food and Commercial Workers International Union contract: “All employees shall, as a condition of employment, pay to the union the initiation fees and/or reinstatement fees and periodic dues lawfully required by the union … . This obligation shall commence on the 31st day following commencement of employment by the employer.”

Does this sound voluntary?

Mr. Bernstein argues that without compelling workers to pay dues, they can “reap the significant benefits of union bargaining without paying for them.” But who gets to decide whether a worker is benefited by a union bargaining agreement? Many workers have made a personal decision that the union fees aren’t worth it. In many union shops, very talented and skilled workers may believe that they can advance faster in the company and earn more by not being covered under a one-size-fits-all union contract. Some may not want to pay for the high salaries and perks of union bosses or help pay for Jared Bernstein’s salary.

Does that really make these Americans “freeloaders,” as Mr. Bernstein insultingly calls them?

Finally, there is the issue of union political activities. Mr. Bernstein says that workers can’t be compelled to pay for this major union expenditure. Except that in practice the union officials make it nearly impossible for workers to retrieve these payments once they are withheld from the paycheck. The National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation, Inc., found, based on audits of union financial statements in litigation, that in many cases over half of the dues paid are not for bargaining of contracts but partisan political activities, such as election ads or other extravagant expenses incurred by the labor bosses.

We know that if they had a real choice, most workers would not freely choose to have these dollars intercepted from their paychecks. When Wisconsin passed Act 10 in 2011 and stopped collecting union dues and fees from paychecks of government workers, some unions saw a decline of 80 percent of worker payments. This is precisely why union officials are so ferociously opposed to these laws.

Union officials try to change the subject away from the compulsion issue and claim that right-to-work is really “right to work for less.” Really? Over the decade ending in 2013, right-to-work states have experienced a higher rate of job growth (8.6 percent) than non-right-to-work states (3.7 percent), according to a study by Arthur Laffer and me for the American Legislative Exchange Council. The worker who works “for less” is the one in the required-union state whose job has left and no longer collects a paycheck at all.

Forced-unionism advocates like Jared Bernstein can argue till the cows come home about how beneficial unions are for workers. But the problem isn’t that they can’t convince me. It’s that they can’t persuade the very blue-collar workers who they claim benefit from the union. As a 17-year-old, I saw firsthand how the union was ripping me off, and I wanted no part of it. So if unions are such a winner for workers, why must they impose laws to force people to join and pay dues? There is no good answer to that one, which is why Wisconsin and a handful of other states are likely to switch to right-to-work and give American workers what liberals used to say they were in favor of: the right to choose.

 - Stephen Moore is an economist with the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Moore Distinguished Visiting Fellow
Project for Economic Growth

Originally appeared in The Washington Times