Are Right to Work Laws the New Slavery?


Nothing concentrates the mind like a hanging, they say. And Indiana's labor unions regard the recently passed Right to Work law that bars them from collecting mandatory dues from workers as a condition of employment as nothing short of a hanging. As far as they are concerned, the law will make it impossible for them to keep their members, effectively spelling their doom. Hence they are thinking up of ever-new and creative ways to dodge the RTW bullet.

There is some reason to believe that they are over-reacting. Investor Business Daily's Sean Higgins recently reported that there is little evidence of declining union membership in RTW states, perhaps because union bosses are forced to attend to worker needs when they can't automatically count on their dues. For example, in Oklahoma, that became a RTW state about a decade ago, Higgins found that when the law was being debated, 6.9% of state workers were unionized. In 2011, the rate was 6.4%, a decline of just 7% over the decade. He notes:

That's not good for the unions, but it is far from a disaster. What's more, the drop is close to the 6% decline in union membership nationally over the same period. [The] membership is stable now.

But Indiana unions are taking no chances and recently filed a lawsuit to overturn the law. Among other allegations, the lawsuit claims that the Indiana law violates the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition against slavery for two reasons:

One, it requires dues-paying union members to work alongside non-dues paying personnel, something that it claims is "compulsory service and/or involuntary servitude within the meaning if the amendment."

This is patently absurd. And Orwellian. For most people, being forced to pay dues for a service one doesn't want to an organization one can't really control would be closer to slavery. But how is having to work next to people you think are being treated better than you like slavery? I'd feel many things if I had to share breathing space with a schmucky coworker who is paid twice as much as me for half the work: Envy. Rage. Indignation. But would I feel enslaved?  No – because that involves an element of force, like when someone holds a gun to your head and forces you to empty your wallet, which is closer to the modus operandi of union bosses.

Two, the suit claims that the law is tantamount to slavery because it compels "unions to furnish services to all persons in bargaining units that it represents, but it may not require payment for those services." Unions are on more solid ground in this argument. Most people would concede that there is something unfair about requiring them to collectively bargain on behalf of workers who don't have to pay dues.

But this is a problem of the unions' own making. They are required to represent all workers in exchange for  monopoly rights over collective bargaining in the workplace. That is the Faustian bargain they made in the Wagner Act. Thanks to the Act, workers who don't wish to be represented by an existing union because, say, it is inept or corrupt or in bed with the company management, are out of options. They can't form another union to represent themselves or deal with the company on an individual basis (companies like it this way too, which is why Big Business and Big Labor both supported the Wagner Act.)

RTW laws are designed to give these workers partial relief by at least allowing them to withhold their dues if they are unhappy with their anointed union. This of course opens the door to free riders, which is far from ideal. But the problem is that unions would like the ideal solution even less because it would go something like this: They wouldn't have to represent non-dues paying workers in negotiations, but these workers would be released to form their own parallel unions.

The upshot would be a multiplicity of unions in the workplace, each aggressively competing with the other for members.

How about it Richard Trumka? Bob King?

I didn't think so.

My recent commentary on what Indiana's RTW law means for the future of the labor movement.

H/T: Michael Jahr. Go here for Michigan Capitol Confidential's story on the lawsuit.