Like Stephen noted, Michigan just became the 24th state to enact Right-to-Work legislation. Michigan becomes the only “blue” state where Right-to-Work is the law of the land. As someone who has lived in Michigan for over a decade, I’m stunned.
The reason this is all the more astounding is that Michigan is the birthplace of the United Auto Workers. It can’t be understated: Unions have been central to Michigan’s economy for decades. (And for the last fifteen years, to its detriment.)
My first encounter with a union is just one reason why unions are not looked favorably in today’s market. My father not only was a union member, he was elected to leadership. So if anything, I grew up with positive feelings about unions.
In order to get hired as a cashier at the drugstore in my hometown (in Minnesota, not Michigan, for the record), I had to join a union. And so at age 16, my dues were automatically deducted from my paycheck and given to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
It’s a free country, right? So I figured that the UFCW and my employer Snyder’s Drug had a right to form a contract where the union would supply labor for management.
“What benefits am I eligible for?” I asked my manager.
“Unfortunately, for you, none. Only full-time employees receive benefits,” he said.
So despite the fact that I was working over 30 hours a week, I was forced to pay union dues to an organization which didn’t even pretend that they had to provide me any benefits. Presumably they would say that the benefit was the high-wage job itself. But this was patently not true, as the low-skill job was not well paying at all. (Hey, I was expecting it to be high-paying, I was 16.) But I soon moved to Sears, which was not a union shop. Not only was I paid more, but I didn’t have to pay union dues.
Why would I want to patronize an association which took money from all, but provided benefits only to some? (Let alone their advocacy for political candidates who I did not support.)
Now some strict libertarians would say that Right-to-Work violates the right of a company to freely enter a contract with a labor union. In other words, this Right-to-Work law is interfering with labor and management. It would violate the contract and allow me to work at that drug store, enjoying the successful labor negotiations won by the union, but not have to pay for them.
I’m sympathetic to the argument, but here’s where I think it falls short. Under current federal law, a union can be imposed on a business against its will. And this has dramatically changed the landscape. When one side can impose itself on another, that party can become corrupt. Unions play off our sympathies from generations past when corporations mistreated workers. But is it impossible to think that the pendulum could swing the other way? Can CEOs be greedy but not union bosses?
So if the right to unionize is a check against abuse from management, why can’t Right-to-Work be a check against abuse from union leadership?
Since it’s unlikely that we’ll see a repeal of the federal law which allows employees to impose a union on a unwilling business, Right-to-Work remains a workable reform to keep unions accountable to the workers which they claim to represent.
And don’t think that unions can’t compete in a Right-to-Work state. Just look at Nevada.