Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to force government employees to pay union dues if they choose not to belong to a labor group. Now Congress needs to give nonunion employees in unionized workplaces the ability to negotiate their own contracts.
Last month, three Republican House members introduced the Worker’s Choice Act. It would allow workers in union shops to negotiate with their employers. That doesn’t sound significant — after all, it’s the norm in many work environments. In workplaces with union contracts, however, this would be a revolutionary innovation.
Under current law, unions negotiate a contract that covers all employees in a bargaining unit, including nonunion members. Even if you don’t join the union, you are subject to the conditions outlined in the union contract. Some nonunion members must also pay “agency fees,” which is the percentage of union dues that support contract negotiations. Agency fees are usually around 85 percent of full dues.
Nonunion employees in right-to-work states such as Nevada don’t have to pay agency fees. This is why unions are bitterly opposed to right-to-work laws. It dramatically undercuts their financial and political clout when they can’t extract payment from those who choose not to join.
Last year, the Supreme Court made all public employees right-to-work. In Janus v. AFSCME, the justices held that the mandatory collection of agency fees violated the free speech rights of nonmembers. In states without a right-to-work law, employees in private unions are still required to either pay agency fees or join the union.
Big Labor argues that agency fees are necessary to avoid “the ‘free rider’ incentive that would arise if nonmember employees could avoid paying dues while nevertheless retaining the benefits of representation by “an informed and expert negotiator,” as AFSCME argued in its Supreme Court brief.
But if unions are so concerned about “free riders,” they would be thrilled with the Worker’s Choice Act. Instead, they’re terrified of it.
The term “free rider” is a misnomer because the law grants unions a monopoly on collective bargaining. That means nonunion workers are prohibited from negotiating their own deals in union settings. This is the equivalent of a lawn care service cutting your grass every week without your permission. The company might complain that you don’t pay them. You’d correctly counter by pointing out that you never asked to receive their services.
But the “free rider” issue evaporates if the union monopoly on bargaining is lifted — as the Worker’s Choice Act would do. In the Clark County School District, for instance, that would allow the 45 percent of teachers who aren’t union members to potentially cut their own deals on such things as merit pay or increased compensation for working at lower-performing schools. Union members could still negotiate any contract they desired, but nonunion teachers would have the freedom to go their own way on matters such as seniority protections and even health care coverage.
Critics of the Worker’s Choice Act argue that this could cause logistical problems for large employers with unionized workers. It’s not difficult to see a scenario, they say, under which nonunion workers in such instances would still remain covered under union contracts simply because management refuses to devote the resources necessary to deal with hundreds of workers on an individual basis. Perhaps. But at thousands of nonunion workplaces — big, small and in-between — throughout the country, employees reach their own contract terms with management on a daily basis without great disruption. In addition, why should unions have to devote resources toward those who don’t want their representation?
But union officials relish monopoly bargaining power because it quashes potential competition that might dilute their power. If they seek exclusive representation, their complaints about “free riders” are without merit. That’s why unions will fight the Worker’s Choice Act so fiercely. They complain about “free riders,” but their priority is preventing employees from having the freedom to make their own decisions.