In last Tuesday’s Daily, Rachel Van Gilder, editorial page editor and fellow columnist, raised my blood pressure when she argued that unions are unnecessary and that Michigan should become a right-to-work state (An unholy union policy, 09/14/2010).

I’ll be blunt: She’s wrong. Not only does she base her arguments on faulty logic, but she fails to support many of her contentions with evidence.

Start with her naïve assertion that unions aren’t necessary because we now have state and federal laws that set minimum wages and workplace safety standards that protect workers. One of the major reasons why we have all those laws and standards is because unions have lobbied hard for them against determined employer opposition. And union pressure helps federal inspectors do their jobs by informing workers of their rights and giving them legal backing if they get fired for trying to exercise them.

Then Van Gilder claims — without a shred of evidence — that we don’t need unions because steelworkers don’t work 14-hour days for no pay in unsafe conditions any more. That’s true in some job classes, but farm workers, coal miners and others still labor in very dangerous conditions.

And plenty of more mundane employers abuse their workers. Locally, the Michigan Restaurant Opportunities Center has detailed numerous problems in local eateries, including violation of minimum wage laws, denial of overtime pay and health and safety violations.

Finally Van Gilder failed to understand that basic economics demonstrates that instead of giving workers more flexibility, right-to-work laws isolate worker’s and reduce their bargaining power.

Most workers are what economists would call price-takers — that is, they have very little negotiating power. The only people with individual leverage in negotiations tend to be at the top of the pyramid — CEOs and highly skilled professionals. A University example is newly minted Provost Philip Hanlon, who wrangled a 28-percent raise despite state aid cuts and a massive recession. As a GSI, I don’t have that sort of power, nor do lecturers, custodians, bus drivers, restaurant servers or wait staff.

The analogy to a labor-management relationship is that of a consumer and a merchant. When I go to the grocery store, I don’t haggle with the produce manager over the price of an orange. I either buy it at $1.99 a pound or I don’t. If we don’t like our job, we can always try to get another one — the equivalent of going to another store. But searching for a job costs time and money, like searching for cheaper oranges wastes an afternoon.

Notice how union membership does not affect the ability to search for another job, undercutting Van Gilder’s contention that unionization hurts worker’s individual ability to negotiate. In fact, many union contracts help workers acquire more skills and better position themselves in the job market by setting up free training courses or allowing for other development. An example is the Lecturers’ Employee Organization contract, which mandates that the University set aside grants to help lecturers implement teaching innovations.

Of course, I think what Van Gilder specifically objects to is being forced to join a union when she is on the job, which she calls “bizarre.” But she fails to understand the dynamics of free-rider problems.

Right-to-work laws undermine workers by making union benefits apply to all workers, but don’t make workers join the union. The set-up encourages some workers to free ride on the organizing and dues of others without sanction. As a result, right-to-work greatly weakens the union’s resources that fund its ability to bargain, protect workers and lobby for worker-friendly laws. As a result all workers lose out.

I’ve been pretty hard on Van Gilder in this column, so I’ll close by sympathizing with her implicit contentions that suggest unions might not always recognize her own views. The way to solve that problem is not to abandon your union (an action which hurts you and your fellow workers), but to get involved with it. Make your union represent you – and if that means you want to settle for a 3-percent raise instead of striking for a 5-percent raise, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I know dozens of activists (including myself) who have gotten involved in our union, the Graduate Employees’ Organization, because we were upset with some of the union’s stances at the bargaining table. Because we got involved, the union is both more pragmatic in its actions and takes into account the needs of groups — like parents and disabled workers, who often fall through the cracks in traditional labor negotiations.

Van Gilder and I agree that unions should be democratic and broadly representative of the wishes of their members, but before she becomes a teacher, she needs to do some homework on the reality of right-to-work laws.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.

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