Within Right-to-Work, One Simple and Undeniable Principle

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Just hours after it was passed by the state legislature on Wednesday, Indiana’s right-to-work bill became law with governor Mitch Daniels’ signature. With that move, Indiana takes its place as the nation’s 23rd right-to-work state—and becomes the first to take that momentous step since Oklahoma in 2001.

As demonstrated over the past year in Wisconsin and Ohio and now Indiana, any time unions are on the defensive, you can expect over-the-top rhetoric and hysterical hyperbole. (Did sympathizers really compare public union protests in Madison to the uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square?)

Deutsch: Indiana State Capitol English: Indian...

Indiana Statehouse

Of course, both unions and those who seek to check their power also come amply armed with data contrasting the economic and employment climate in right-to-work and forced-union-dues states, with each side claiming their particular stats tell the true tale.

In the end, however, all the bluster and all the numbers are completely irrelevant—because there’s a simple crystallizing principal at the heart of right-to-work laws:  No citizen should be forced to pay money to a union to get or keep a job.*  

That’s truly the essence of right-to-work laws—both in principal and in prose. If you’re skeptical, you need only skim the text of any existing right-to-work law.  In an age of 2,400-page federal health reform bills and 2,300-page financial reform laws, they’re almost astonishingly brief .  Go ahead—click a right-to-work state on this handy map and you’ll see in black-and-white the surprisingly simple nucleus of the right-to-work debate.

Freedom to associate—or not to

Right-to-work laws reinforce and protect a vital American freedom: the freedom of association.  In most discussions of right-to-work, the emphasis is on the freedom not to associate, since these laws prohibit employers from making union membership or the payment of union dues a condition of employment.  However, right-to-work laws are equally protective of workers’ freedom to voluntarily associate with unions, barring employers from firing workers who join them.

Unions argue that right-to-work laws enable employees to become “free-riders,” enjoying the presumed benefits of union efforts without having to pay for them. However, their logic withers when you examine the underlying principles at play.  Labor unions insert themselves into voluntary associations between employers and workers to offer their own product: representation. In a free country, one shouldn’t be compelled to purchase a product because its vendor assumes it has value. Unions have no more right to use force to obtain compensation for their services than I do for mine.

Number 24? 

The political geography of right-to-work is intriguing. As that same map shows, the 22 states that had already enacted right-to-work laws are contiguous.   When Indiana’s law takes effect on March 14, it will become an island of labor liberty in a sea of forced-dues coercion; perhaps it will someday be remembered as an initial beachhead in America’s union-heavy Rust Belt. Either way, you can’t gaze upon that map without wondering which state will be next—and yes, Big Labor, the nation will surely advance to 24 and even 30 before it ever retreats to 22.

Considering that New Hampshire proudly calls itself the Live Free or Die state, it’s a shame its governor recently made a mockery of that motto by denying his citizens freedom from forced dues. If some federal legislators have their way, governors’ stances on the matter may be rendered moot: The proposed National Right to Work Act would do for the entire country what Indiana and the other 22 states have had to do individually—and painstakingly.

As one who favors greater state autonomy, I’ll admit the notion of a federal move on the matter gave me pause–until I learned that the National Right to Work Act wouldn’t add a single word to federal law. Instead, it merely deletes five sinister provisions of the National Labor Relations Act and another in the Railway Labor Act that authorize employers to fire workers who refuse to pay union dues.

Passage of the National Right to Work Act would represent but one key step in the nation’s long path back to the principles of liberty upon which it was founded. Taking that step merely requires the acknowledgement of a simple and undeniable truth: Any system where collusion between employers and unions forces  individuals to surrender wages to an organization they’ve decided not to join is indefensible. 

*A writer’s postscript: A few months after posting this, I realized the imperfection of right-to-work laws from a libertarian perspective and thus the imperfection of my argument. Specifically, right-to-work laws represent government force: The state is forbidding an employer from hiring only union workers. Employers should, of course, be free to make such a decision if it’s made without coercion.

That said, I still favor right-to-work laws because they balance a far greater exertion of government force in the form of labor laws that prevent employers from exercising their right of free speech by actively dissuading workers from joining unions. I recognize, however, that this is a “better of two evils” conclusion on my part. 

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14 Responses to Within Right-to-Work, One Simple and Undeniable Principle

  1. mcmal1bu says:

    Unions are scabs on society that bleed companies like a parasite until there is nothing left.. the workers lose their jobs and the unions bosses get a fat bonus.. and the democrats that support them get reelected, imagine that.. ironic that the losers are the unionized workers and the winners are the unions bosses and democrat politicians.

  2. Joe Gannon says:

    The “Right to Work for LESS” movement is nothing more than another part of Republican Party’s classwarfare against working poeple in America. It’s bank rolled by people like the Koch brothers. Anyone who thinks they are donating millions a year promoting adoption of a law that will HELP working people is a moron. They are designed to destroy unions, plain and simple. People can put out all the smoke screens they want about the purpose, but they in fact on just ONE goal, and that is the desctruction of unions.

    • cdmsr says:

      You are dead right. The legal terminology applicable to these laws says it straight up: Right to work means employees can be fire for “good cause, bad cause or no cause at all.”

      • LibertyMcG says:

        If an employee is free to sever the employment relationship for “good cause, bad cause or no cause at all,” why should the other party to the arrangement–the employer–not be able to do the same thing?

  3. The Right to Work law has some seriously negative effects in that an employer can fire an employee for absolutely no reason at all and the employee has no rights in fighting the company if the company committed libel, refused to pay for travel, had a hostile environment, expected more hours worked for no extra pay in the case of exempt employees that particular requirement can add up to a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week work week. When looking at unemployment statistics, where is the company’s responsibility to maintain its employees and provide them with a reasonable work environment. In healthcare this is becoming a virus. Do whatever we ask or you are fired. We shouldn’t have to pay for unions but then again, maybe unions are the only type of protection from companies that simply exploit their employees and then fire them. Regardless of what anyone says, firing people and rehiring is saved salary dollars that go back into the profits of these companies. It is a very profitable habit. Where are our politicians now with unemployment so high? They stand for the companies that can financially back them and to hell with the individual employee. There are problems with any law but this right to hire law is nothing more than the right to fire and the right to exploit their employees in any way they wish. Sounds like paid slavery to me and it leaves the individual employee with no support and nowhere to go. Ask any lawyer. I did.

    • LibertyMcG says:

      Thanks for visiting, Chris. Generally, right-to-work laws only prevent union membership from being a condition of hire or continued employment and are silent on many of the points you raise.

      For example, you expressed concern that employees have “no rights…if the company committed libel, refused to pay for travel, had a hostile environment…” Employees in all 50 states have the ability to address such concerns, whether a union is present or not. Depending on where you live, libel is either a criminal or civil wrong that can subject the offender to punishment or financial damages. Similarly, refusal to pay for travel or anything else that had been agreed upon would be a violation of contract. Regarding hostile work environments, the federal Equal Opportunity Opportunity Commission is just one outlet for holding wrongdoers accountable.

      As for working environments, the existence of both right-to-work and forced-unionism arrangements among the states gives us a great laboratory with which to observe the outcomes of each. Were there such stark contrasts where forced-unionism states fostered significantly more desirable work environments, we should expect to observe significant migrations from right-to-work states to forced-unionism states. However, there’s no such comprehensive trend and, in fact, there’s ample data showing the opposite pattern. Oklahoma and Texas, for example, are right-to-work states witnessing net immigration from forced-unionism states, while New Hampshire—a forced unionism state—is seeing a net loss of taxpayers to right-to-work states.

      Numbers aside, we don’t even find an established reputation—among average Americans or late-night comedians—that right-to-work states are terrible places to work. That truly seems to be a myth fabricated by union leaders whose primary interest is protecting their cashflow and their own well-paying positions. It’s also important to note that, while early unions likely played a key role in improving working conditions, state laws, agencies and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration render much of the supposed “working condition” value of unions obsolete.

      As for the ease of firing, keep in mind that when you make it significantly more difficult to release an employee, you make employers far more reluctant to make a new hire. Imagine if you were contemplating hiring a part-time daily babysitter or full-time nanny and were told that it would be extremely difficult to ever fire that person. You’d likely reconsider your idea and explore other alternatives to hiring someone. As with so many things in economics, it’s important to consider not just the “seen man” (the person in the union) but also the “unseen man”…the one who wasn’t hired because a union made it too expensive or too burdensome.

      Finally, it bears repeating that right-to-work laws do not bar unions—they merely make joining a union a voluntary action made by free citizens deciding if membership serves their best interest.

      (PS: This commentary page has been receiving steady traffic from Canada, as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario consider adopting right-to-work. While my comment rests on U.S. facts and frameworks, I imagine many of the same dynamics are applicable in Canada.)

      • cdmsr says:

        You are addicted to the drug of false equivalency.

        Laws governing employment situations invariably have numerical thresholds that must be met prior to their application, so your babysitter examaple is pure bushwa.

      • LibertyMcG says:

        cdsmr: My babysitter example wasn’t about the potential for babysitters to become unionized. I was merely trying to help those who aren’t employers understand an employer’s mindset by using the idea of hiring a babysitter as an example, and having them think how their decision might differ if, for some imaginary reason, they couldn’t cut off that relationship later without going through great pains.

        All things equal, any employer would be more reluctant to hire an additional worker if their ability to undo that decision is limited by forces outside their control. Points for using “bushwa” though.

      • cdmsr says:

        Nice try, but no cigar.

        Your example of baby sitters/nannies was an obvious apples-and-oranges effort to compare temporary contract employment situations with open-ended jobs.

        And — no offense — but it wasn’t even a very good effort at that as babysitters and nannies are themselves nonequivalents, one being an informal arrangement and the other, a specialized profession.

        But, to the point: babysitters and nannies are hired for set periods, baby sitters for a few hours and nannies, usually, per annum. Also, true nannies are usually hired through agencies that invariably require extensive contracts which protect them from abuse and wrongful termination, requiring good cause for dismissal prior to the end of the contracted period, exactly the sort of protections one would have under a union contract.

      • LibertyMcG says:

        You’re really getting wrapped around the babysitting axle on this, especially since it was purely hypothetical and intended to illustrate a principle, and not the intricacies of babysitter/nanny labor dynamics.

        I simply wanted the reader to put themselves in the position of an employer and contemplate how their eagerness about hiring would differ if they knew their freedom to change their mind later and fire that person would be severely restricted.

        So forget that I ever typed the word “babysitter” and pick whatever hiring example pleases you. The underlying truth remains: If the freedom to fire is restricted, it’s only natural that employers place more scrutiny on the decision to add a new position in the first place.

  4. I have no problem with a union so long as it remains strictly voluntary. The moment it prevents non-members from working for an employer on a voluntary basis agreed to by the potential employee and employer, it becomes a cartel. Nothing more, nothing less.

    The historical picture painted of labor unions being responsible for all manner of improvements in the lives of the working class (weekends, work conditions, etc.) are suspect at best. I happened upon a history professor at a local college a few years back and cornered him, asking about the conditions in textile mills and why people would submit to such atrocious conditions — surely, I probed, they would have had other economic means prior to the existence of the mills?

    I was shocked when he smiled, and replied that most of his fellow labor historians (he specialized in the industrial revolution!) were outright Marxists, that once conditions really got bad, the women and children working there simply went back to the farms (and became underemployed, but fed and housed), and that it wasn’t until the Irish came in large numbers, starving, that conditions really dropped. And at that point things really were bad, but mostly because the mill bubble had burst, and mills were going out of business left and right – the mill owners were by no means filthy rich, they barely kept operations going, and could only do so because there were starving immigrants willing to work for next to nothing, because it was the best option they had.

    What a different narrative from what I had in my textbook at a government school.

    • LibertyMcG says:

      Thanks for the different perspective on the ‘history’ that’s so often repeated without questioning!

    • cdmsr says:

      Good lord!

      The number of self-evident falsehoods in this little narrative is staggering.

      Are we to believe that the farmland lay fallow for years waiting for the women and children to return? Or that the land barons who swept up bargain-priced farms and incorporated them into large holdings when the clodbusters abandoned them were so happy to see their former obstacles return that they provided them food and shelter that had to be more costly than any labor they could be expected to contribute?

      But first, what evidence did this professor offer that the mills’ workers were ever predominantly rural families who had abandoned their farmsteads to toil in the cities as opposed to the immigrants that were already crowding into those same cities? Beginning in the 1840’s (a period that coincides with the so-called ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ AKA the Technological Revolution) massive immigration from Europe was the norm — with an understandable lull during the Civil War — until the Gay Nineties.

      And let’s not forget that the same rapid industrial/technological advances that made the urban mills possible also wrought massive change in agriculural practices. Mechanical mowers, threshers, harvesters and combines did the work of an army of field hands making the supposed return of the erstwhile farm families as welcome as smallpox.

      All that notwithstanding, the men who famously created land empires were predominantly cattlemen who would not be likely to welcome the farmers’ return under any circumstance.

      A last question: Did the school where this ‘professor’ taught have any of the following in its name?


  5. Means of Production says:

    Well said. The NLRB’s recent lawsuit against Boeing over Boeing’s attempt to open a plant in right-to-work South Carolina clearly demonstrated that unions still have great influence at the highest levels of government.

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