Jacques: Don't like union 'free riders'? Here's answer

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
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Freeloading isn't generally a good way to make friends.

Michigan union members who have chosen to opt out of their union under the state's right-to-work law definitely know that's true. They've been called free riders, freeloaders and much worse because they still benefit from union-negotiated contracts—without paying for the service.

But it's not their fault. Many of these former union members don't want to be under the union contract, yet they don't have a choice under a longstanding provision in state law that grants a public sector union exclusive representation.

For instance, there can only be one union negotiating the contract for a public school district. Individual teachers who leave a union can't represent themselves.

So why not solve the problem and let public employees who leave their union work out their own contracts? After all, that's what the 47 percent of Michigan's public employees who aren't covered by a union contract already do.

F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center, has a solution, and he's calling it "worker's choice."

"It's a brand new concept," Vernuccio says. "This should give both sides more freedom."

Vernuccio details the idea of worker's choice in a report released Tuesday. He's spent the last year and a half working on the project, and he's expecting it will serve as a model for reform to Michigan law, as well as in other right-to-work states. Currently, 25 states give employees the freedom to opt out of a union and keep their job. Michigan's law passed in 2012 and took effect in early 2013.

Worker's choice is fairly straightforward. As laid out in the report, it would give public employees two options: "Be a union member and accept the working conditions negotiated by the union or opt out of union membership and negotiate for compensation and working conditions independently."

No state has yet addressed the public sector freeloading phenomenon, so Michigan could set an example for the rest of the country if lawmakers take this up. Federal labor law covers most private sector employees and unions, so it would be up to Congress to revise those provisions.

Some state legislators in the House and Senate have played around with similar ideas. Earlier this year, for example, Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, introduced a bill that says government employee unions don't need to represent and collectively bargain for employees who leave the union.

Other Michigan lawmakers are paying close attention to the worker's choice concept, and are considering introducing new legislation that mirrors Vernuccio's blueprint.

And while the impact would be sizable for those involved, Vernuccio says worker's choice wouldn't significantly alter how unions operate in Michigan, and it wouldn't touch collective bargaining.

"I'm not really expecting a seismic shift of change," he says.

This may seem like an obvious solution, but exclusive representation is something unions have strongly advocated —even while complaining about free riders. So expect that to continue if this concept gains traction in the Legislature.

Giving union members who opt out the ability to represent themselves is more fair for everyone involved. That's something that should bring labor supporters and right-to-work advocates together.

"It's a common-sense reform everyone should be happy with," says Vernuccio.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.


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