Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Collective Investment

Michigan is in an uproar after majority Republicans in the state legislature, faced with losing seats in November's elections, pushed through a right-to-work law there. President Obama spoke out against such actions.

"These so-called right-to-work laws, they don't have anything to do with economics; they have everything to do with politics," President Obama said.
"What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
Michigan passes 'right-to-work' legislation
In a nutshell, right-to-work laws are geared towards mandating "open shops," and thus disallowing unions from mandating that workers either join a union or pay union dues or fair-share fees as a condition of remaining employed. ("Closed shops," outlawed by the Labor-Management Relations Act, prevented non-union workers from being hired. "Union shops" allow for workplaces to mandate joining a union within a certain amount of time as a requirement to remain employed. "Agency shops" allow for the collection of dues or fees from non-union workers who could join the union - again as a condition of employment.)

For proponents of the law, it's ostensibly about freedom of association, and not being forced to pay an organization that one doesn't belong to. For opponents of the law, their stand is ostensibly about preventing free-riders and making sure that unions can do their work. Pro right-to-work activists point to the fact that in those states where such laws exist, there tends to be greater employment (although it's not generally possible to separate out the effect of such rules from the raft of other pro-business initiatives that right-to-work states have enacted). Those in favor of maintaining agency shop rules counter that the jobs pay less and are overall less desirable.

In the end, however, it's all about "money." For the Republican lawmakers and business interests who back such legislation, it's all about reducing the ability of unions to spend money in campaigns, by lowering the amount that they take in. For the Democratic lawmakers and labor groups that oppose right-to-work, such laws are designed to tilt the political playing field in favor of deep-pocketed corporations and wealthy individuals who have the money to fund advertising buys during campaign seasons. And so "money" becomes a stand-in for "access to the average voter," who is perceived as politically apathetic to the point of deciding who to vote for solely on who has the greatest number of colorful yard signs or the highest density of slickly-produced television commercials.

In states where agency shops are allowed, unions share with government a nearly unique ability - that of being able to define a good or service as being of value to someone, provide it unasked-for, present the recipient with a bill and then sanction them for non-payment. Whether or not this is actually a good idea as a matter of public policy is lost within the acrimonious debate over the flow of money into politics. Which is a shame, because it is a worthwhile debate to have.

In effect, union dues and fair-share fees are an investment. And like any investment, there should be an expectation of a return. Whether or not employees feel that membership in a union is worthwhile depends on their perception of the costs and benefits. In union and agency shop situations, the calculus includes the fact that opting out means giving up one's job. In an open shop, it doesn't. Instead, it becomes like public broadcasting - the unions have to make a case to non-members that membership bring benefits (tangible or not) that are worth paying for even though it cannot withhold its primary service. One of the problems that the organized labor movement may have is that this appears to be a difficult case to make at times. Dire warnings of a return to the bad old days of rampant labor abuses and unfair practices by employers often seem hyperbolic and distant.

The decline of union membership among American workers demonstrates, perhaps, the idea that unions are less relevant to people today than they used to be, and the spread of right-to-work laws is a part of that - after all, the lawmakers who enact them were usually elected into their offices. Perhaps it's time that we re-opened that public debate again.

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