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Missouri’s Right-to-Work (RtW) legislation, signed into law by Governor Eric Greitens in February of 2016, essentially states that no employee or prospective employee, with certain exceptions, can be required to join a union or to pay union dues or agency fees. But before the RtW law’s effective date on August 28th, well over 300,000 signatures were collected in opposition, which is believed to meet state requirements for a referendum on the issue. As a consequence, the law was put on hold, pending a vote in November.

A casual look at a variety of statistics by state “right-to-work” status shows an impressive advantage for RtW states, though that doesn’t imply causality. One can certainly think of reasons why the causality might be operative, and I find some of them plausible, but that’s not the line of argument I want to pursue here.

The Libertarian Divide

Libertarians are of divided opinion on the desirability of RtW laws. David Boaz wrote about this division back in 2012. On one side, it’s clearly an abrogation of an individual workers’ rights to require, as a condition of employment, entry into a third-party association against their will, or to coerce payment of dues or fees for collective bargaining and ongoing representation on a variety of job-related issues. Such a requirement would violate the constitutional protections on freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of contract. Boaz quotes Vinnie Vernuccio and Joe Lehman of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy:

Right to work does not change any aspect of collective bargaining other than preventing employees from getting fired for choosing not to join or remain in a union and pay union dues or agency fees, which may go toward political causes they don’t support. Collective bargaining still exists in right-to-work states, and workers are of course free to organize.

This may overstate the consequences for workers who would rather not join a union. Non-union workers have so-called Beck rights, which allow them to opt out of “core membership” and  pay reduced dues covering only representation. An appropriate accounting for that portion of dues might not be straightforward, however, and it is still likely to represent an involuntary payment. Moreover, awareness of Beck rights is far from universal, and asserting them might not be straightforward.

Libertarians who disagree with the perspective expressed in the quote above emphasize the employers’ freedom of contract as though it takes primacy over worker autonomy in the shaping of voluntary and mutually beneficial employment relationships. The thinking is that an employer might actually prefer to host a union shop. There are presumed efficiencies of collective bargaining, standard and agreed-upon work rules, lower turnover, and perhaps even worker loyalty. Among this group of libertarians are Holman Jenkins, Sheldon Richman, and Gary Chartier:

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.

Labor Law

One could be forgiven for thinking that Chartier and the others view RtW as a form of government intervention in otherwise free labor markets. These critics acknowledge, however, that there is already intervention in labor relations via the Wagner Act (1935), which among other things prohibits any refusal “to bargain collectively with the representative of the employer’s employees.” Under the Act, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is charged with:

“… overseeing the process by which employees decide whether to be represented by a labor organization and prosecuting violations. ... issue rules interpreting the labor legislation. This will generally be binding, unless a court deems it to have acted outside its authority. … prevent unfair labor practices, lead investigations, collect evidence, issue subpoenas, and require witnesses to give evidence.

So, the NLRB is empowered to force employers, if it so chooses, to bargain collectively and even to rule on whether a vote by employees was “fair”. RtW laws are defended as a force to countervail against this federal power. The Wagner Act was later amended by the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) to curb union power and abuses. It created more balance in the relations between unions and employers and it offered some protection to non-union job seekers by prohibiting closed shops. It also allowed states to pass RtW laws to proscribe the forced payment of agency fees by non-union employees, if states so choose. Nevertheless, labor law continues to support monopoly union privileges and abusive tactics. Moreover, restrictions on unions’ use of dues and agency fees for political activities are difficult to enforce in the absence greater requirements for union financial transparency. The response from libertarian critics of RtW laws is that there are avenues for additional reform at the federal level without adding additional interventions (RtW) at the state level.

One of the clearest rebuttals to the above arguments against RtW laws comes from Ivan Osorio of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who first quotes Chartier on prospective legislation in Indiana:

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

Here is Osorio’s rejoinder:

“... there is no jurisdiction anywhere in the United States where there is no such interference at all. Simply replace “union shop” with “open shop,” and the one-sidedness of Chartier’s query … becomes clear. Why should the government forbid an employer from negotiating a voluntary membership agreement with a union?

Exclusive Representation

Another side of the RtW debate is the contention that non-union workers receive the same benefits achieved via collective bargaining if they are employed by a firm having an otherwise unionized work force. Thus, the non-union workers are said to be “free riding” on the union’s efforts. This framing is highly misleading, however. Under the Wagner Act, a firm’s non-union workers are not entitled to pay for benefits negotiated by the union unless the union has opted for exclusive representation. In that case, those non-union workers are not so much free riders as “compelled riders“, who may be forced to accept certain terms, working conditions and particular representation in grievances against their wishes. The union’s exclusive power is thus flexed in two ways: as a monopoly seller of labor to the firm, and as a monopoly seller of agency services to the worker, extracting dues or agency fees in the process.

Balancing Rights

David Henderson’s perspective on the RtW issue is appealing, as he accounts for the tradeoff between emphasizing the rights of workers and employers:

It’s true that [RtW] laws make it illegal for employers to do what some of them might want to do: namely hire only union workers, require everyone who works for them to join unions, or require everyone who works for them to pay dues to a union. But are there really likely to be many such employers? I don’t think so. …

Now, I don’t know that there are no such employers. Maybe there are some. If so, then it becomes a tradeoff. On the one hand, preserve the rights of many non-union workers, many union workers, and unionized employers but trample on the rights of those few unionized employers. On the other hand, trample on the rights of many union workers, non-union workers, and unionized employers but preserve the rights of those few unionized employers. I choose the first option because I think it tramples on way fewer people’s rights. And, remember, that if you say right-to-work is wrong and you get your way just on that issue, the federal government will continue to trample on many people’s rights. …

… the best solution is to abolish the law that gives government-enforced monopoly power to unions. Sheldon [Richman] and I agree on this. The issue here is whether we should just settle for saying that and pushing for that or do something else meanwhile.

Union representation can protect workers from an imbalance of power between a large employer and individual workers. But it is not all sweetness and light for unionized workers, not to mention consumers who pay for the influence of unions on prices in general. While unions played a critical role in establishing and defending workers’ rights over the years, they have increasingly presented agency problems for their constituencies. They have also hastened declines in industries facing competitive pressures, which in turn have hastened the decline of union representation generally. (Public sector unions present a different set of problems involving conflicts of interest with taxpayers, but those are beyond the scope of this post.) In general, worker rights in the private sector are better served by allowing self-determination in the matter of union representation. To the extent that state RtW laws protect that autonomy, they are probably worthwhile at this point in the evolution of labor relations. However, if that is the primary effect, RtW is something of a misnomer.