The Editorial Board, 9:37 p.m. EDT March 16, 2015
Last week, Wisconsin became the latest state to declare itself “right-to-work,” meaning workers there can’t be required to join unions, or pay union dues, as a condition of employment.
Wisconsin follows two other traditional blue-collar states, Michigan and Indiana, that enacted right-to-work laws in 2012. In all, 25 states have now used a provision in the 68-year-old Taft-Hartley Act that gave them the ability to pass such laws. A half-dozen others are considering it.
Organized labor — suffering from decades of declining membership — is up in arms about the trend, which significantly reduces unions’ power. But from a standpoint of individual rights, it has to be seen as a positive development. Right-to-work states have stood up for people’s freedom to associate (or not associate) that courts have held is contained in the First Amendment.
Without right-to-work laws, employees can be forced to support an organization with which they disagree.
They might, for instance, be ardent social conservatives miffed by how unions almost always work to elect Democrats. While workers can usually opt out of financing political contributions, they have a harder time extricating themselves from union endorsements and the positions unions take on pending legislation. And workers might also object to union rules they feel hold them back, like those that reward seniority over initiative or protect unproductive co-workers.
Those factors partially explain the unions’ long decline, and not just in right-to-work states. Workforce unionization has dropped from 20.1% of the workforce in 1983 to 11.1% today. (The drop is even bigger among private-sector workers.) The reasons include technology, globalization and the economy’s shift to industries that are ill-suited to unionization — either because they constantly innovate, or because they are small businesses without the critical mass of workers that unions need.
Critics argue that right-to-work laws suppress wages, make it harder to form and maintain unions, and encourage “free riders” who receive union benefits without paying for them. These are not trivial arguments. They start with the assumption that launching unions should be easy, and that once a majority of workers opt for one, there’s nothing wrong with compelling others to join, since all reap the benefits.
But the price is loss of choice and leverage. With forced membership, unions don’t need to be responsive. Right-to-work states force them to be, and when they are, they thrive.
Take Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents hospitality and casino workers in the Las Vegas gaming industry. It is among the nation’s most powerful unions. It operates in Nevada, a right-to-work state. And yet the union is so effective that it has nearly 100% voluntary participation.
Unions have important roles in fighting for better wages and working conditions. In right-to-work states, they just have to try harder to prove their worth to prospective members.
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