THE RIGHT TO WORK: A FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOM
By Mark Mix
Where does this story begin?
Union officials such as William Green, President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and John L. Lewis, principal founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), hailed this legislation at the time as the “Magna Carta of Labor.” But, in fact, it was far from a charter of liberty for working Americans.
Section 8(3) of the Wagner Act allowed for “agreements” between employers and officers of a union requiring union membership “as a condition of employment,” if the union was certified or recognized as the employees’ “exclusive” bargaining agent on matters of pay, benefits, and work rules. On its face, this violates the clear principle that the freedom to associate necessarily includes the freedom not to associate. In other words, the Wagner Act didn’t protect the freedom of workers because it didn’t allow for them to decide against union membership. To be sure, the Wagner Act left states the prerogative to protect employees from compulsory union membership. But federal law was decidedly one-sided: Firing or refusing to hire a worker because he or she had joined a union was a federal crime, whereas firing or refusing to hire a worker for not joining a union with “exclusive” bargaining privileges was federally protected. The National Labor Relations Board was created by the Wagner Act to enforce these policies.
During World War II, FDR’s War Labor Board aggressively promoted compulsory union membership. By the end of the war, the vast majority of unionized workers in America were covered by contracts requiring them to belong to a union in order to keep their jobs. But Americans were coming to see compulsory union membership — euphemistically referred to as “union security” — as a violation of the freedom of association. Furthermore, the nonchalance with which union bosses like John L. Lewis paralyzed the economy by calling employees out on strike in 1946 hardened public support for the right to work, as opposed to compulsory unionism. As Gilbert J. Gall, a staunch proponent of the latter, acknowledged in a monograph chronicling legislative battles over this issue from the 1940s on, “the huge post-war strike wave and other problems of reconversion gave an added impetus to right-to-work proposals.”
When dozens of Senators and Congressmen who backed compulsory unionism were ousted in the 1946 elections, the new Republican leaders of Congress had a clear opportunity to curb the legal power of union bosses to force workers to join unions. Instead, they opted for a compromise that they thought would have enough congressional support to override a presidential veto by President Harry S. Truman. Thus Section 7 of the revised National Labor Relations Act of 1947 — commonly referred to as the Taft-Hartley Act — only appears at first to represent an improvement over Section 7 of the Wagner Act. It begins:
Had this sentence ended there, forced union membership would have been prohibited, and, at the same time, voluntary union membership would have remained protected. Unfortunately, the sentence continued:
This qualification, placing federal policy firmly on the side of compulsory union membership, left workers little better off than they were under the Wagner Act. Elsewhere, Taft-Hartley did, for the most part, prohibit “closed shop” arrangements that forced workers to join a union before being hired. But they could still be forced to join, on threat of being fired, within a few weeks after starting on the job.
This argument applies as much to compulsory unionism — or “union security” — as to the opposite idea that unions should be prohibited. And, in a December, 1918, address before the Council on Foreign Relations, Gompers made this point explicitly:
Compare Gompers’s traditional American view of freedom to the contemptuous view toward workers of labor leaders today. Here is United Food and Commercial Workers union strategist Joe Crump advising union organizers in a 1991 trade journal article:
And in 2005, Mike Fishman, head of the Service Employees International Union, was even more blunt. When it comes to union organizing campaigns, he told the Wall Street Journal, “We don’t do elections.”
Under a decades-old political compromise, federal labor policies promoting compulsory unionism persist side by side with the ability of states to curb such compulsion with state right-to-work laws. So far, as I said, 22 states have done so. And, when we compare and contrast the economic performance in these 22 states against the others, we find interesting things. For example, from 1999 to 2009 (the last such year for which data are available), the aggregate real all-industry Gross Domestic Product of the 22 right-to-work states grew by 24.2 percent, nearly 40 percent more than the gain registered by the other 28 states as a group.
Even more dramatic is the contrast, if we look at personal income growth. From 2000 to 2010, real personal incomes grew by an average of 24.3 percent in the 22 right-to-work states, more than double the rate for the other 28 as a group. But the strongest indicator is the migration of young adults. In 2009, there were 20 percent more 25-34-year-olds in right-to-work states than in 1999. In the compulsory union states, the increase was only 3.3 percent — barely one-sixth as much.
In this context, the decision by Boeing to open a plant in South Carolina may be not only in its own best interest, but in ours as well. So, in whose interest is the National Labor Relations Board acting? And, more importantly, with a view to what understanding of freedom?
The National Labor Relations Act affects only private-sector workers. Since the 1960s, however, 21 states have enacted laws authorizing the collection of forced union dues from at least some state and local public employees. More than a dozen additional states have granted union officials the monopoly power to speak for all government workers, whether they consent to this or not. Thus, today, government workers are more than five times as likely to be unionized as private sector workers. This represents a great danger for taxpayers and consumers of government services. For as Victor Gotbaum, head of the Manhattan-based District 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said 36 years ago: “We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss.”
How this works is simple, and explains the inordinate power of union officials in so many states that have not adopted right-to-work laws. Union officials funnel a huge portion of the compulsory dues and fees they collect into efforts to influence the outcomes of elections. In return, elected officials are afraid to anger them, even in the face of financial crisis. This explains why states with the heaviest tax burdens and the greatest longterm fiscal imbalances (in many cases due to bloated public employee pension funds) are those with the most unionized government workforces. California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin represent the worst default risks among the 50 states. In 2010, an average of 59.2 percent of the public employees in these nine worst default-risk states were unionized, 19.2 percentage points higher than the national average of 40 percent. All of these states, except Nevada, authorize compulsory union dues and fees in the public sector.
Reprinted by Permission from Imprimis,
A Publication of Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan
Reprinted from Imprimis, Volume 40, Number 5/6, May/June, 2011
Personal Rights & Liberties -- Issues Relating to
Individual Rights & Liberties under Natural & Civil Law
U.S. Constitutional Law & Political Philosophy
Political Economy -- Philosophies, Systems, & Public Policies:
Government, the Economy, & Economic Prosperity
Mark Mix is President of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, as well as of the National Right to Work Committee, a 2.2 million member public policy organization. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Finance from James Madison University and an Associate degree in Marketing from the State University of New York. His writings have appeared in such newspapers and magazines as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the Detroit Free Press, the San Antonio Express-News, the Orange County Register, and National Review.
The foregoing article by Mark Mix is adapted from a lecture he delivered at Hillsdale College on January 31, 2011,
during a conference co-sponsored by the Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig von Mises Lecture
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