Tag: Management

The Right to Work

(I had planned this post for Friday but delayed it for obvious reasons. I don’t expect anyone wants to discuss Right to Work at the moment, but I’ll get it out my queue. A post on Sandy Hook is coming, hopefully tomorrow night.)

I had a few thoughts on the “Right to Work” debate that is raging (literally) in Michigan and other states. While I am generally supportive of what’s going on, I think it needs to be unpacked a bit because it’s not clear that “right to work” is, in and of itself, a good thing.

The argument against RTW is explained by Gary Chartier in a must-read. Essentially, right to work interferes with the right of contract. Right to work doesn’t just open up closed shops; it forbids them.

If employers choose to conclude union-shop contracts with unions, what gives the Indiana legislature the right to interfere?

Employers own the wages they will pay and the sites where work will be performed under such contracts. So it’s their right to dispense the wages and make the sites available specifically to union members, just as it’s their right, more generally, to trade with anyone they choose.

When a legislature interferes with voluntary employment contracts, it infringes people’s freedom to bargain with their own labor and possessions. Treating this kind of interference as acceptable means licensing arbitrary interventions into the market by politicians, who are ill-equipped to second-guess the decisions made by the real people making work agreements with one another.

Ezra Klein makes related points:

The term “right-to-work law” is a triumph of framing. Such laws do not, in fact, give you the “right to work.” They give you the right to refuse to pay union dues when you work for a union shop, even though you get the wages the union bargained for, and the benefits the union bargained for, and the grievance process the union bargained for.

And “union dues” isn’t even the right term here. In Michigan, for instance, you can work in a union shop without joining the union and paying full union dues. The costs of the union’s political activities, its membership events, and more are removed from your dues. You pay a lower fee, because you’re just paying, at least in theory, the cost of the union’s representation activities.

If an employer required an employee to be at work at 9 am, we would think that was reasonable. If an employer required an employee to dress appropriately, we would think that was reasonable. Let’s put aside the dubious proposition that am employer necessarily wants a closed shop. Can that not be part of the agreement they make with a union?

(For the moment, we’re discussing private unions. Public employee unions are an entirely different kettle of newspaper-wrapped fish.)

J. D. Tucille at Reason goes further, pointing out that this is, in essence, a libertarian argument:

The ideal role for the government in business-labor relations is to stay the hell out of it and let the parties work things out themselves. I may prefer one outcome or another, but I don’t have the right to enforce it by law, and that’s what right-to-work legislation does.

This argument sounds reasonable until you account for the context — and Tucille did the next day. I’ll quote Chartier again:

Defenders of right-to-work laws also sometimes point to the background labor-law framework in the United States as a justification for these laws. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and its successors established a system that requires an employer to bargain with a union enjoying majority support in a given workplace. Right-to-work proponents argue that the laws they favor only help to level the playing field created by government action—by reining in special privileges granted to unions under existing labor law.

Exactly. The NLRA has given states two choices: either they are a closed-shop union state or they are an open shop right-to-work state. There is no in-between. If you’re in a non-RTW state, you have to close your shop and deal with the union. If you’re in a RTW-state, you still have to deal with the union but you have to maintain an open shop.

Frankly, these “right to contract” arguments sounds a bid odd coming from the pro-union left who have supported card check and kept silent while unions have attempted to forcibly rope unrelated workers into the union. But I’ll bite. Here’s my suggestion. We overhaul the NLRA to give both employers and unions the right to contract as they see fit. If a union demands a closed shop and their employer is willing to give them one, that’s fine. But other choices have to be available.

Funny, how the right to contract suddenly disappears when that’s on the table.