Mix: Think voluntary, not coercive, unions

Mark Mix

Americans regularly join and form clubs, civic associations and church groups, to say nothing of the countless other organizations that rely on little more than the enthusiasm and support of their members. This is such a common occurrence that it seems ingrained in our national character.

Alexis de Toqueville, the famous chronicler of early 19th century American life, observed that, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”

Much has changed since de Toqueville’s time, but our shared enthusiasm for voluntary association is still evident. Indeed, we’ve discovered new outlets for our passions and interests, as the Internet and new communications technology have made it easier than ever to meet and share ideas, projects and inspiration with like-minded people.

What do our tremendous varieties of civic organizations have in common? At first glance, not much. A weekly Bible study group, a club for cycling enthusiasts and your neighborhood civic association may have one or two members in common, but their priorities, resources and goals are quite different. They all depend, however, on the spirit of voluntarism. Without members’ willing support, these organizations would quickly wither away.

But one type of private organization doesn’t play by the same rules. Employees across the country can be forced to pay union dues and accept union bargaining over their wages and working conditions just to get or keep a job. Union officials’ coercive power over employees, many of whom want nothing to do with a union, flies in the face of America’s tradition of voluntarism and free association.

The problem is particularly acute in states without right-to-work laws, where union officials are empowered to collect dues from all employees in a unionized workplace, even those who do not belong to the union or oppose its presence. In one recent case, a nonunion California firefighter was actually forced to “donate” some of his annual leave for union activities.

Imagine being forced to “donate” your spare time to a local club or paying mandatory dues to your neighborhood’s civic association. Most people would bridle at the thought of having to contribute to organizations they may not be interested in supporting. Yet that is exactly how unions operate in many American workplaces.

Right to work laws, including Michigan’s recently enacted reforms, bring the spirit of voluntarism back to the American workplace. In right-to-work states, employees are still free to form, join and pay dues to a union. However, no worker can be forced to join or pay dues against his or her will. Right to work simply requires that unions stop acting like a dues collection racket and start playing by the same rules as every other private organization.

Union officials are understandably reluctant to give up their forced dues cash, and insist that they’re entitled to nonunion workers’ dues because they must bargain on behalf of all employees in a unionized workplace. This, however, is not true. Unions always retain the option to only negotiate for their own members, something that rarely gets mentioned in union officials’ melodramatic tirades against right to work.

Right-to-work laws can also revitalize unions’ relationship with their members. A club that alienates its core supporters must adapt quickly or disappear. Similarly, if workers can leave a union and stop paying dues, union officials must pay close attention to their feedback and grievances, a process that encourages greater accountability.

For too long, union officials have enjoyed privileges beyond that of any other private organization in the country. And while union membership has steadily declined over the past few decades, the groups and voluntary associations that make up our civil society continue to thrive. Michigan’s recently enacted right-to-work laws protect employee choice and revive the spirit of voluntarism in the workplace and on the shop floor. That’s something that Michiganians of all stripes, including union officials, should celebrate.

Mark Mix is president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.