Editorial: Michigan workers deserve real choice

The Detroit News

Four years after right to work was passed in Michigan, workers in this state have yet to experience complete freedom from their unions. Thanks to something called exclusive representation, long embedded in state law, public employees who opt out of a union aren’t allowed to negotiate their own contracts.

Unions maintain that right, and union leaders have fought for it since their power comes from numbers. But some individual workers aren’t a fan of it. Union members don’t appreciate it when fellow employees leave the union and don’t pay dues — but still benefit from the labor contract.

It doesn’t seem fair. Union workers frequently complain about right-to-work “freeloaders.” They have a point.

Yet it is not the fault of those who exercise their right under Michigan law to leave their union. Many of these employees would like to work out their own contracts. But they can’t.

That’s true not just here, but in the other 25 right-to-work states. According to a recent survey of U.S. union members sponsored by the National Employee Freedom Week campaign, almost 70 percent believe that workers should represent themselves if they don’t want to pay dues.

There’s an easy fix to this if Michigan lawmakers want to pave a new path. And it could come soon in the state Legislature, with a bill that would relieve public employee unions of their exclusive representation, while not interfering with collective bargaining and other union interests.

F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has advocated the concept of “worker’s choice” the past year, and he wrote a comprehensive model of how legislation could work. He says it’s getting some traction in Michigan, and he’s hopeful other states will take it up, too.

Worker’s choice is simple. It would allow 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 pay and other conditions on their own.

Federal labor law covers private sector unions, so Congress would need to revise those provisions.

Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, introduced a bill last year that says government unions have no duty to represent workers who don’t pay dues or fees. That bill got stuck in committee, but Glenn is getting ready to introduce additional legislation that would take the concept further.

It’s worth pursuing.

This conversation is extremely relevant in Michigan, where union membership rates have exceeded the U.S. average for decades, according to a 2016 report from Bureau of Labor Statistics. While down from a peak of 26 percent in 1989, membership rates rose to 15.2 percent in 2015 from 14.5 percent in 2014. The national average is 11.1 percent.

As right to work becomes more entrenched in Michigan, the issue of allowing individual workers to represent themselves will grow increasingly relevant.

That’s not to say rank-and-file union members are going to start leaving their unions in droves. But for the workers who do want out, it’s fairer for everyone involved if they can negotiate pay and compensation directly. Unions could finally kiss freeloaders goodbye.