December 17, 2012

Right-to-Work and the "Weakening" of Academic Unions

The Michigan legislature has just passed a Right to Work bill. That will allow unionized workers in the state, including teachers and professors, to stop paying dues to the union representing them and not be fired - as would have previously been the case.  Unions almost always bargain for and get contract clauses stipulating that any worker who does not pay whatever dues are demanded must be terminated.

Predictably, spokesmen for Big Labor have come out with hand-wringing over this move. David Hecker of the American Federation of Teachers, the largest higher education union in Michigan, said that the legislation "was designed to weaken unions." (Inside Higher Ed has the story.) The truth of the matter is that whether or not the educators his union purports to represent act as the law permits them to is out of the hands of the legislators and Governor Snyder.  If any educators who are represented by the AFT or some other union chooses to stop paying dues, that reflects a failure on the part of the union to convince them of the union's value.

Stating things differently, Hecker is assuming that unions will not be able to persuade their members (many of whom never joined voluntarily, but had to as a condition of employment) that the union's services are worth what it charges. He is probably right. In other states where educators have been given freedom of choice, many have stopped paying union dues. The crucial point is the extent to which that happens is not a matter of destiny. Educators have free will and the unions have the freedom to try to influence them.

One professor who took a very dim view of faculty unions and fought against mandatory dues while he taught in the California State system is Charles Baird. Baird wrote an illuminating piece for the Pope Center on the impact of unionization here.

What about Hecker's argument that Right to Work merely enables people to become free riders?

Even if it were true, in a free society it's infinitely more important to protect against use of legal coercion to make someone a forced rider - i.e. someone who is compelled to pay for things he does not want - than to eliminate the possibility of free riding. People and organizations do many things that might be beneficial to others whether or not they help defray the costs. It's integral to a free society that the individual gets to choose how to allocate his limited money and resources among the things he enjoys.

But it is not true that union have a legal obligation to represent workers who decide not to pay, as Heritage Foundation's James Sherk noted here. The idea that faculty unions can't survive unless they're able to compel everyone to pay dues is  erroneous and deceptive.

Faculty unions ought to have to play by the same rules as all other private organizations, interacting with individuals and other groups on a purely voluntary basis. State right to work laws are a step in that direction.Right-to-Work and the "Weakening" of Academic Unions

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