In the Daily last week, Rachel Van Gilder wrote a column that urges the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rick Snyder, to push for a right-to-work law if elected (An unholy union policy, 09/14/2010). In her column, Van Gilder describes right-to-work as a law that makes it “illegal to force people to join unions,” but the reality is a little more complex than that.
Right-to-work allows workers to choose whether or not to pay for their union representation. Under the current regime, workers are never compelled to join unions. However, businesses can reach agreements with the workers that representation fees are a condition of employment. Because employees will make more back in higher wages negotiated through the union than they pay in dues or fees, few workers have a problem with paying representation fees.
However, in right-to-work states, workers in a unionized workplace get the benefits of the union-negotiated contract, regardless of whether or not they pay dues. Predictably, if workers can get the union benefits without paying for them, many will choose to do so, and unions will then be under-funded.
The design of the right-to-work laws is to create this free-rider problem and destroy unions. In this sense, the law is hypocritical. Anti-union critics characterize union workers as expecting something for nothing, but right-to-work laws allow just that: workers can reap the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement without paying their share.
Van Gilder’s column then begins a separate economic argument: Michigan would be better off under a right-to-work law because it would weaken unions. She cites a study claiming Michigan would have 60,000 more jobs without union security. However, the author concedes that the jobs would pay less, $14,000 per year less. That’s the price of in-state college tuition, health care or perhaps the difference between foreclosure and a family staying in their home.
This underscores a larger point about right-to-work laws. Generally, the purported jobs that result from having a right-to-work regime are lower paid. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2001, workers in states that have adopted right-to-work laws make about $5,000 less a year than workers in other states, including Michigan. This is a stark contrast considering Michigan is widely regarded to have one of the worst economies in the nation.
Furthermore, the internal logic of the “right-to-work increases jobs” argument doesn’t make sense. Why would less unions and lower wages incentivize companies like GM or Chrysler to add new hires to their plants? Their lines are already staffed — they don’t need any more workers, regardless of wage. Lower wages would only translate into increased profits to shareholders, just like it did when these same car companies shipped many jobs to Latin America in the 1990s.
Finally, Van Gilder says that unions are no longer needed in an era with Occupational Safety and Health Administration — more commonly known as OSHA — and where the steel mills don’t have a “14 hour work day” and “unsafe conditions.” Clearly, Van Gilder has never been to a steel mill, but I have. Over the summer I visited mills in Pennsylvania. It is 130 degrees with poor ventilation. The company had received a large rush order, and many workers were in their 76th hour of work for the week. The day after I was there, a coke oven exploded killing two workers and maiming twenty others, giving horrid third degree chemical burns that will make their faces unrecognizable to their families and charring their esophagus so that they must take food intravenously. They will also never speak words again.
The truth is actually the converse of what Van Gilder claims, as anyone who heard of the mine explosion in West Virginia over the summer that killed 29 workers would know. In an era when safety regulators are being captured by the industries they regulate, unions that close the unregulated industry are in the best position to enforce those laws the government will not.
The reality is that nothing material has changed about the employee-employer relationship since the National Labor Relations Act was passed in the 1930s. The employer still holds all the power. A potential employee only has their labor to withhold, which is meaningless unless it is collectivized.
All right-to-work has to offer is less effective unions, lower wages and more profits for shareholders. But most importantly, it hurts the workers’ voice in their employment. What little democracy there is in a workplace ought not be ceded for an illogical promise of a small amount of jobs.
Blase Kearney is a law student and a member of Michigan Immigration and Labor Law Association.