Andrew Wilson, Daniel J. Mitchell, Fifth Amendment, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Contract, Freedom of Speech, Missouri 2018 Proposition A, Monopsony, Political Action Committees, Right to Work, Show-Me Institute, Steve Spillman, Union Activism, Union Dues
I’d be angry if my employer forced me to contribute to the company’s Political Action Committee (PAC), and that view is shared by many of my colleagues. It would be illegal, of course, at least as a condition of employment. I love my job, but I give nothing to the PAC because I do not trust it to properly represent my political preferences. That goes for political contributions and lobbying activity that might benefit the company and, by extension, my own economic interests. I simply do not believe the company will refrain from corporatist practices, and I do not under any circumstances want my contributions lavished on politicians with whom I have policy differences.
In my home state of Missouri, unions and their political allies insist that union dues payments should be a condition of employment in unionized workplaces. Like PACs, unions are major political contributors, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t a large number of union members who object to the use of their dues for political contributions and activism. Of course, most of that activism is broadly anti-capitalist. This, quite simply, constitutes compelled speech and is a violation of employees’ First Amendment free-speech rights. Forced membership is a violation of the worker’s freedom of association under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Unions are also presumed to represent the interests of workers in negotiating with management, but not everyone wants that representation, especially given the corruption that has often plagued unions over the years and the poor economic performance of unionized industries in general. That last statement applies to public employee unions no less than private sector unions. Prohibiting non-union workers from employment at a unionized firm violates their freedom of contract under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. I agree, however, that an employee refusing to join a union should not automatically be entitled to the wages and benefits negotiated by the union in collective bargaining with the employer. That should be strictly between the non-union employee and the firm.
Missouri Proposition A, which is on the state’s August 7 ballot, is a referendum on a right-to-work (RtW) law already passed by the general assembly and signed by the governor last year. I’ve discussed reasons why some libertarians have expressed disagreement with this kind of legislation—primarily because it denies an employer the right to hire workers exclusively from a unionized pool of labor. As Daniel J. Mitchell has noted, right-to-work laws are a second-best, compensatory solution to other forms of government intervention in labor markets that essentially grant unions monopsony privileges. Furthermore, giving primacy to an employer’s right to deal exclusively with a union ignores the rights of non-union workers and the rights of union members who do not wish to contribute to a union’s political activities. Trampling on the latter stands in contrast to the established protection of my rights against coerced contributions to my employer’s PAC.
The standard economic argument in favor of RtW laws hinges on the favorability of a state’s business environment and its competitiveness with other states. Andrew Wilson explains how and why Prop A will create jobs in Missouri. He notes that over the ten years ending in 2014:
“…average job growth in the 22 states with RTW laws in place for most or all of that time was more than twice as fast (at 9.1 percent) as in the 28 forced-union states. The RTW states also had considerably faster growth in personal income (at 54.7 percent compared to 43.5 percent) and a much stronger economic growth (50.7 percent compared to 38.0 percent).”
Wilson also remarks on a historical phenomenon which pro-union forces refuse to acknowledge: unions have undermined the competitive position of the industries upon which their members rely. It’s a classic principal-agent problem. Workers appoint an agent for representation, but the agent acts independently to maximize its own gains, often at the expense of the workers. RtW applies discipline to the process, reinforcing the union’s incentive to put members’ interests above of its own. After all, nearly all employers have to compete for workers, and private employers have to compete in product markets. Union workers have been exempt from competition only to the extent that their wage demands have not undermined the business’ competitive position, but they frequently have.
The real rub, according to RtW opponents, is that business interests will simply “crush” unions under RtW and impose lower wages and poor work conditions on workers. But as I alluded above, there are employers that prefer to work with a union for a variety of reasons. Second, suppose that new employees of a unionized firm refuse to join the union, or that some union members opt out. That’s a pretty strong indication that union membership is an unattractive proposition. Whose fault is that?
I favor Proposition A because workers should not be forced to accept representation by any third party, firms should not be forced to hire exclusively from those willing to do so, and because workers should not be required to contribute to union political initiatives. But as Steve Spellman writes, unions could do much to enhance their value to both workers and firms, attracting membership and gaining advantages in bargaining with employers:
“If unions focused on providing helpful, outsourced H.R. functions to companies, such as worker recruitment, drug screening and taking care of all that labor-law-compliance paperwork, it would sure change their reputation. As would standing up for its members, while also taking necessary (and fair) disciplinary actions instead of covering up for the occasional bad apple (even if that is only one worker out of 1,000). … If we can dream a little here, unions could also be best positioned to stand up for workers who are discriminated against, for whatever reason, rather than waiting on the law to catch up with our evolving society.”