Samuel Gompers, the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor, once said, “There may be here and there a worker who for certain reasons unexplainable to us does not join a union of labor. This is his right, no matter how morally wrong he may be. It is his legal right, and no one can or dare question his exercise of that legal right.”
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) recently introduced legislation that would undermine this right on a national level. Sherman’s bill would eliminate state right-to-work laws, forcing workers to pay union dues to keep their jobs.
Union membership is at historic lows. Private-sector union membership fell to 7.2 percent in 2009 and is expected to hit 6.9 percent this year.
Section 14(b) of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act allows states to enact right-to-work laws prohibiting unions from requiring employees to pay dues to keep their job. Currently, 22 states give workers the option to join a union or refrain from paying dues. In 28 states, employees do not have this right and can be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment (usually deducted directly out of their paychecks).
Sherman’s bill would abolish Section 14(b), and extend compulsory unionism to all 50 states.
In a statement Sherman released to announce his bill, he argues “right to work laws require unions to represent non dues-paying employees, thereby undermining the basic premise and promise of union membership and creating free riders—people who are exempt from paying their fair share.”
Union leaders often repeat this argument. Labor expert Paul Kersey of the Mackinac Center in Michigan responds, “A union that provides valuable service in contract negotiating, even in right-to-work states, should have little problem earning the loyalty and dues of a vast majority of employees.”
As a Democrat who escaped the 2010 Republican Congressional election tsunami in November, Sherman has much for which to thank Big Labor. Unions have donated more than $1.2 million to him throughout his political career. The Carpenters, Machinists, Operating Engineers, and Teamsters donated $10,000 each for his 2010 reelection campaign. The AFL-CIO gave him a 100 percent positive rating on his voting record.
Slow Growth in Union States
Besides his loyalty to Big Labor, Sherman may have a more provincial interest in eliminating right to work. States such as Sherman’s California are increasingly seeing companies move to areas with more business-friendly environments, including right-to-work states. A recent Cato Institute study noted the population in right-to-work states has doubled since 1970 and has increased by only 25.7 percent in forced-dues states in that time.
In addition, the National Institute for Labor Relations Research found between 2003 and 2009 nonfarm private-sector employment grew 9.3 percent in right-to-work states but only 3.6 percent in forced-dues states. It also found the number of workers covered by health insurance increased more in right-to-work states, and employees had more disposable income.
Sherman recognizes the competitive disadvantage of his and other forced-dues states. He calls the competition a “race to the bottom,” but business leaders see right to work as benefiting both the economy and workers.
For Jobs and Capital
The Wall Street Journal recently noted right to work and tax policy “[stand] out as perhaps the most important in attracting jobs and capital.… States that permit workers to be compelled to join unions have much lower rates of employment growth than states that don’t. Many companies say they will not even consider locating a factory in a state that does not have a right-to-work law.”
Several forced-dues states—including Michigan, Indiana, and Missouri—have taken notice and are exploring enacting right-to-work laws. Sherman’s bill would halt those efforts.
A 2009 Gallup poll showed most Americans believe “unions mostly hurt the economy.”
Sherman’s bill is believed to be facing an uphill fight in the lame duck session.
F. Vincent Vernuccio ([email protected]) is labor policy counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a former official in the U.S. Department of Labor.