Vinny: I understand you played a game of pool with Lisa for $200, which she won. I’m here to collect.
J.T.: How ‘bout if I just kick your ass?
Vinny: Oh, a *counter*-offer. That’s what we lawyers—I’m a lawyer—we lawyers call that a “counter-offer.” This is a tough decision, here. Get my ass kicked or collect $200. Let me think . . . I could use a good ass-kicking, I’ll be very honest with you . . . Nah, I think I’ll just go with the two hundred.
—Joe Pesci as Vinny Gambini, and Chris Ellis as J.T. in My Cousin Vinny
Tuesday, over much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, Michigan displayed some semblance of sanity and became the 24th State to pass a “right-to-work” law forbidding mandatory membership in, and payment of dues to, labor unions. Shockingly, there apparently was also at least a little violence involved, and we wouldn’t want to have some sort of union issue without someone getting beaten up, now would we? But let’s understand: right-to-work laws do not outlaw labor unions. Nor do they “gut” them, as the Washington Post’s resident nitwit E.J. Dionne is claiming; if unions really are still the benevolent good for workers that they claim to be, their membership and leverage should not suffer in the least.
So why are Dionne’s and the unions’ panties in a wad?
Let me say up front that I have friends and family that in one way or another are or have been involved with unions, and I recognize that organized labor has played a valuable role in improving the lives of workers. One wonders, however, if the unions have outlived their usefulness, or at least overstepped their proper bounds.
The modern U.S. labor movement has its roots in the late nineteenth century, when working conditions born of the industrial revolution were often prohibitively bad. Hours were too long, pay was too low, and the environment was too dangerous. And for the average mill worker, or miner, or longshoreman, there wasn’t much you could do about it, because individually you had no leverage. The job was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and if you complained to management that you were overworked, couldn’t survive on your current wages, or needed a better hardhat, there was someone else willing to take your place without those complaints.
By organizing into unions, workers as a group were able to accomplish what any one of them as an individual could not. One miner or one millworker with a complaint would be told to take a hike. But if all of them—or enough of them—went to management together and said “fix this or we’ll walk,” management would be forced to listen or face the possibility of being shut down due to a lack of workforce. This is the concept of “collective bargaining,” and at a time when wages and working conditions really were a problem, and when the unions confined themselves to representing their membership in negotiating with their employer for improvements, they did some good things.
But by the 1950s, all that had pretty much been accomplished. So what’s a union to do, once its workers have 35 or 40-hour week, $50K or better in wages (plus overtime bonus)—i.e., the median American income—full medical coverage, and a retirement pension on top of Social Security?
Well, a funny thing happened once the union leaders discovered it was much cushier and more lucrative living off of union member dues than going back to the assembly plant floor. Having achieved their primary purpose, the unions increasingly ceased to be about representing their membership than about perpetuating their existence and expanding their financial and power base. This only got worse as local unions became national ones, and groups of national unions became umbrella mega-unions-of-unions (see, e.g., AFL-CIO).
More and more, the unions moved out of the business of negotiating labor contracts and into the business of politics, which has led to a symbiotic relationship between labor and the Democrats, almost exclusively to whom unions contribute a collective hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Although federal law technically allows employees to “opt out” of union political spending and pay only for direct representation costs, a report by the Wall Street Journal last summer found that actual union political spending was more than three times higher than their reported amount of “voluntary” member political contributions. Things like lobbying activities, internal voter-persuasion drives, and support for unionized political protests, all come from the unions’ general dues fund, whether you as an individual union member like it or not.
But as the unions grew in size and power, the bargaining position pendulum overcorrected. Not only were the unions able to extort untenable compensation and benefits packages, but they were also able to force many employers to accept union security agreements that required employers either to hire only union members, or insist that non-union members join the union within 30 days of employment or be fired. This is not unlike the tying arrangements and exclusive dealing contracts that are largely outlawed by our antitrust laws—laws that people like Dionne and the rest of the Left would undoubtedly support at the top of their lungs. The unions in effect establish a monopoly on the supply of labor, and then use that monopoly to perpetuate their cycle of political symbiosis through the extraction and expenditure of compulsory dues taken from their members, many of whom did not voluntarily join.
This is where right-to-work comes in.
Contrary to all the vitriol from the unions and the Dionnian Left, right-to-work laws do not outlaw unions. Unions can and will continue to exist, as they do in every one of the 24 States that have right-to-work laws. No one is denying anyone the right to organize in Michigan, Texas, or anywhere else. You may freely associate with anyone you choose, for any lawful purpose, and that includes getting together with as many of your fellow dockworkers or truck drivers as agree and seeing if you can negotiate a better deal for yourselves (which is what “unions” originally were). And presumably if what your organization is providing for its members is as beneficial as you say, people acting in their individual self-interest will reach that same conclusion and join.
If you are going to have this freedom of association, however, the necessary corrollary must be that you are equally free NOT to associate if that is your choice. The right to free association cannot also include the right to compel others to join you (and, by extension, to fund your political activities whether they agree with you or not), or the freedom becomes meaningless. This is all a right-to-work law does; it prevents unions from establishing circumstances where union membership—and dues payment—is a prerequisite to employment. They give people a choice.
Of course, once you introduce free individual choice, you create the prospect for competition. It is this competition that the unions and the Left can’t tolerate, hence the squealing over right-to-work laws. Like everything else the Left spawns, this system depends on a built-in mechanism of mandatory participation in order to sustain it. They cannot survive on their own merits in a universe of individual free will. Whether it’s Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, or Unions, their idea/program/system/organization is so good for you you can’t be trusted to decide for yourself whether to join. Like your mother with cod liver oil, they’re going to force it down your throat because they know what’s best for you.
Right-to-work is about choice. Opposing it is by definition about coercion, as it always is with the Left.