Mix: Right to work brings new era for autoworkers

Mark Mix

Are you an autoworker? A member of the UAW? Are you tired of paying dues or fed up with your union’s policies? When the UAW’s contracts with the Big Three automakers expire later this month, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin autoworkers will finally have the chance to decide for themselves if paying dues to UAW officials is a good use of their money.

Many autoworkers will choose to stop paying union dues, deciding that the money saved will do more good in their own pockets. Others will surely continue to financially support to the UAW, as is their right.

The important thing is that the choice will be in the hands of individual employees. And while union officials continue to fume about losing their lucrative forced-dues revenue, fully voluntary union dues should actually help revitalize the UAW’s relationship with its members.

Although recently-enacted right to work laws in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin prohibit mandatory union dues, many employees – including autoworkers – were unable to immediately take advantage their newly-enshrined rights. That’s because the right to work bills left in place forced-dues provisions that existed before the laws went into effect. Now that the old UAW contracts are about to expire, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin autoworkers will soon be able to opt of paying any union dues at all.

Why do employees choose to stop paying union dues? Many are dissatisfied with union officials’ increasingly partisan political activism, which often conflicts with the views of rank-and-file members. Others simply want to take home more of their hard-earned pay. Some employees disagree with their union’s negotiating tactics or bargaining concessions and want to make their displeasure known to the higher-ups.

That last point is particularly relevant to the many autoworkers who have vocally complained about the UAW’s recent contract negotiations with Ford, GM and Chrysler. UAW members have voiced fears that union and company officials will continue their two tier employment system or even, according to some reports, create a third tier of lower-paid jobs in the auto industry.

Whatever the merits of this complaint, UAW members certainly have a right to make themselves heard. More importantly, they now have a way put their money where their mouth is. Before Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin went right to work, autoworkers at unionized facilities had to suck up their complaints and continue paying dues for workplace bargaining, even if they were fed up with the results. Now, any member who doesn’t like the UAW’s approach can leave the union and stop paying dues.

This newfound accountability should actually invigorate America’s labor unions, including the UAW. For decades, union membership has declined dramatically, even in states that force workers to pay union dues to get or keep a job. Union officials are often seen as out-of-touch with the very employees they claim to represent.

In right to work states, however, union officials have to be more responsive to employees’ views or risk losing their financial backing. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana’s recent reforms build on a tried-and-true method of making union officials more accountable to their members.

The case for right to work has always rested on the importance of employee freedom. No worker should be forced to join or pay dues to a union to get or keep a job. However, right to work reforms in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana also give UAW members a chance to make their voices heard while holding union officials accountable for their actions. That’s also worth celebrating.

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