Worker’s Rights Advance, Under the Radar

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In the firestorm of news reports surrounding President Trump’s nominees and Russia’s hacking, some great news about workers’ rights has been overlooked. But in January, without any fanfare, Kentucky adopted a right-to-work (RTW) law.

An RTW law simply gives workers in any business where the workers are unionized the right not to support (i.e., join or pay dues to) the union. Without RTW laws, unions can and often do compel workers to join or support them in spite of their desires. While the right to join a union is protected by federal law, the right to refuse to join is not so protected. It is up to the states to pass RTW laws, and counting Kentucky, 27 states have now done so.

The Kentucky House of Representatives first passed the measure by a vote of 58–39. What allowed this to happen was a massive recent historical change: the Republicans took control (by a nearly 2-to-1 margin) of the chamber, which had been controlled by Democrats for nearly a century. Shortly thereafter the bill was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, in a rare Saturday session, and the Governor — Matt Bevin, also a Republican — immediately signed it into law.

Short-term, this was a fabulous deal for the auto workers, giving them a seemingly crazy amount of job security. But in the long run, it drove the automakers off a fiscal cliff.

The reaction to this by Kentucky union leaders was predictably bitter. Bill Londrigan, head of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, angrily barked, “Right-to-work is simply a clever slogan designed to undermine union resources.” Caitlin Lally, of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council, lamented, “The future of the fight is in . . . trying to stop the erosion of wages, benefits and safety.”

This is nonsense, of course. There are several compelling arguments about why it is morally repugnant to force workers to support a union, arguments that are winning out in state after state.

First, unions justify forcing workers to support them with the free rider argument: since the unions deliver great contracts to the workers, it is right to make every worker pay dues. However, it is by no means clear that unions negotiate contracts that benefit the workers overall and long-term. For example, the contracts the United Auto Workers were able to force upon US automakers included provisions that seemed great — such as the one requiring the companies to keep all employees on at full pay when any of the companies shuttered a plant (say, because the model made at the plant wasn’t selling). Short-term, this was a fabulous deal for the auto workers, giving them a seemingly crazy amount of job security. But in the long run, it drove the automakers off a fiscal cliff, resulting in the bankruptcy of two of them, and in turn requiring taxpayers to pay massive amounts of subsidies to keep the companies alive.

Second, the right to free association applies to all parties. You and your friends are free to form a club, free from any interference by me. But I have the same right to refuse to join, no matter how much you might think it would benefit me to be a member. Similarly with unions: the right of private-sector workers is sacrosanct, and nobody — least of all I — proposes to take it away. But the right to opt out of the union should therefore be recognized as equally sacrosanct.

Workers who are pro-Second Amendment find with alarm that their dues fund politicians intent on ending gun rights.

To this, union apologists offer the freedom-to-contract argument: workers and management have the right to contract freely, so if a company’s workers can get management to agree to a contract compelling all workers to support the union, the rest of us shouldn’t interfere. But the union apologists are intellectually dishonest here, since they support the federal law that prohibits “yellow dog” contracts — that is, contracts that forbid unionization. If there is freedom of contract, then yellow dog contracts should be allowed, too.

Finally, there is the point made by Thomas Jefferson: “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Unions typically use worker dues for the lavish support of politicians and political organizations that are typically Left-liberal in orientation. So workers who are pro-life find with disgust that their dues go to support extreme pro-choice candidates, and workers who are pro-Second Amendment find with alarm that their dues fund politicians intent on ending gun rights.

More good news for worker freedom may be just around the corner: both Missouri and New Hampshire are considering RTW laws, and both have newly elected Republican governors who have indicated that they support free choice for workers.




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