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Right-to-Work Laws Put Employees in the Driver's Seat

December 16, 2012 - 6:00pm

Right-to-work laws benefit both non-union and union workers as well as the unemployed.

Without right-to-work, unions negotiate contracts requiring employers to fire workers who don't pay union dues. Employees must pay the union $500 to $1,000 a year or lose their job.

Workers have the right to unionize if they choose. But if workers don't support a union, the law shouldn't force them to pay dues.

In recent years, Michigan unions lobbied heavily for tax increases and against expanding charter schools. They spent tens of millions attempting to rewrite the Michigan Constitution. Workers with different priorities should have the right to spend their money elsewhere without losing their job.

Allowing employees to opt out also holds unions accountable. Few union members actually voted for union representation; nine in every 10 joined by accepting work at an already unionized company. Laws forcing these workers to pay dues give unions few incentives to represent them well.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Right-to-work puts employees in the driver's seat: they pay only if they see value from the union's services. This accountability prevents unions from presuming workers' support. In the long run, right-to-work makes them more effective representatives.

Unions respond by arguing that right-to-work allows non-union employees to "freeload." They argue the law shouldn't force them to represent employees who don't pay dues. It's a powerful argument, but rests on a false premise.

The National Labor Relations Act permits -- but doesn't mandate -- unions to represent every worker at a company. If unions do so, the law requires them to represent non-union employees fairly. However, as Justice William Brennan wrote a half-century ago, "'Members only' contracts have long been recognized" by the Supreme Court. Unions voluntarily represent non-union workers. That hardly justifies forcing them to pay dues.

Right-to-work also spurs hiring. No business wants to become the next Hostess, crippled by union demands. Employers want to know that unions will leave them alone if they treat workers well. Right-to-work gives employers that assurance -- unions organize less aggressively when dues become voluntary.

It was no accident that foreign automakers built virtually all their U.S. plants in right-to-work states. Overall, studies find that right-to-work laws increase manufacturing employment by a third. Unemployed workers can't afford to have their states ignore that kind of competitive advantage.

James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation.

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