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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George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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