Soon - perhaps today - Governor Mitch Daniels will sign legislation making Indiana the nation’s 23rd right-to-work state. Labor unions angrily oppose the change, but their opposition has no legitimate or principled basis.
State right-to-work laws, authorized by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, are not anti-union. They are pro-choice: They protect workers from being forced to join or pay fees to a labor union as a condition of keeping a job. In non-right-to-work states, employees who work in a “union shop’’ are compelled to fork over part of each paycheck to a labor organization - even if they want nothing to do with unions, let alone to be represented by one.
Laws like the one Indiana is poised to enact simply make union support voluntary. Hoosiers can’t be required to kick back part of their wages to the Republican Party or the Methodist Church or the Animal Liberation Front; the new measure will ensure that they don’t have to give a cut of everything they earn to labor unions, either.
Most Americans regard compulsory unionism as unconscionable. In a new Rasmussen survey, 74 percent of likely voters say non-union workers should not have to pay dues against their will. Once upon a time, labor movement giants like Samuel Gompers, a founder of the American Federation of Labor, agreed. “I want to urge devotion to the fundamentals of human liberty - the principles of voluntarism,’’ declared Gompers in his last speech to the AFL in 1924. “No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion.’’
But far from rejecting compulsion, Big Labor now fights tooth and nail to defend it. And no wonder: Unions have long since squandered the affection of the American public. In the years right after World War II, more than one-third of the US workforce was unionized; now the union membership rate is just 11.8 percent, and most of those members are government employees. In the productive economy, Americans continue to flee from organized labor. Last year only 6.9 percent of workers at private companies belonged to unions.
So as a matter of by-any-means-necessary expediency, it is easy to understand why Big Labor long ago embraced what liberal scholar Robert Reich (later Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor) dubbed “the necessity for coercion.’’ In order “to maintain themselves,’’ Reich said in 1985, “unions have got to have some ability to strap their members to the mast.’’ Or, as Don Corleone might have put it, to make them an offer they can’t refuse.
But is there any ethical reason - any honorable basis - for the union shop?
Labor and its allies are ruthless, and usually quite effective, in beating down right-to-work bills. Indiana will be the first state in more than a decade that has succeeded in banning labor contracts that oblige all employees to pay money to a union as a condition of employment. (A similar bill in New Hampshire last year was vetoed by Governor John Lynch.) No-holds-barred vehemence in defense of principle might be understandable. But what legitimate principle are the unions defending?
To hear them tell it, they only object to “free riders.’’ Labor leaders claim it would be unjust to allow employees to avoid paying for the unions that negotiate benefits on their behalf. “There’s always going to be a certain amount of the population that will take something for free if they can get it for free,’’ says Nancy Guyott, head of the Indiana AFL-CIO.
That’s not a principle, it’s a shameless pretext. Unions demand monopoly bargaining power - the right to exclusively represent everyone in a workplace - and then insist that each of those workers must pay for the privilege. This is the “principle’’ of the squeegee man who aggressively wipes your windshield when you stop at a red light, then demands that you pay for the service he has rendered you.
By the union’s “free rider’’ logic, shouldn’t all voters be forced to subscribe to a daily newspaper, since all of them benefit from its journalism? And shouldn’t every company be compelled to support the Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of business, whether individual firms ask it to or not?
The passion with which Big Labor fights right-to-work helps explain why so many Americans have abandoned unions. The labor movement was born in freedom and choice. That’s not what it stands for anymore.Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.