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What ‘right to work’ really means

Updated: January 17, 2013 6:19AM

It’s civics class time again, students. Who can tell me what a “right to work law” is?

[Surely it means a person has a right to a job — correct?]

Nope. The law is misnamed. A “right to work law” doesn’t give you the right to a particular job — or even a general right to be employed. The law says that a company and a union cannot agree that employees have to (1) join the union or (2) pay union dues or fees even if they don’t join. About two dozen states have such laws, and Michigan’s legislature just enacted one.

[That seems fair. If you don’t want to be in a union, why should you have to join or pay dues?]

The unions argue that their advocacy benefits all workers — not just union members. They negotiate for higher wages and retirement packages, or better working conditions. And if they succeed, the non-union workers benefit too. Therefore, the non-union workers should also have to pay.

[But what if they don’t think it’s a “benefit”? What if they believe the union’s demands will be so costly that they drive an employer to shut down a plant — or even drive it out of business? Or what if they just don’t believe in unions? We don’t make people join or pay to support churches they don’t believe in. Or political parties. Shouldn’t workers have a right not to join or write checks to groups they don’t support?]

You’re forgetting the “free rider” problem. Non-union workers benefit from collective bargaining. Bargaining requires advocacy, and costs money. It’s only fair that the non-union types help pay for that advocacy.

[That’s a terrific argument. Suppose you’re over 50. AARP advocates for greater benefits for you. They have members who pay dues to cover the cost. But lots of over-50 folks aren’t members. If you’re over 50, you’re getting a free ride. Shouldn’t you be required by law to join or pay too?

[Or consider environmental protection. The American Institute for Conservation works hard to protect our environment. Their members pay dues — but lots of folks aren’t members. Yet they benefit from the work. Shouldn’t they have to pay too?]

Those are “public interest” issues. Unions represent workers who have an economic interest in labor negotiations. More like lawyers representing private clients.

[OK. Suppose you’re a lawyer who represents classes of plaintiffs. If you win, it will help everyone in the groups — whether they’re part of your class or not. Shouldn’t they be required to pay part of your fees?]

Not a chance. The law specifically recognizes the right of potential plaintiffs to “opt out” — which means not participate in the class, and not pay your fees.

[Then why shouldn’t a worker have the same right not to join — and not to pay? Besides, why do state legislators care about this anyway? Isn’t the important thing to protect collective bargaining for those who want to be represented by a union — not to compel others to join or pay?]

Ah, you’re saying this isn’t about the right of collective bargaining — but only about how much money the union will have in its coffers? [Seems so to me.]

And you’re asking why should the legislators care about that? [Yes.] What do you think the unions do with the money?

Eden Martin is a lawyer and former President of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

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