Although there are many intricacies involved, the debate over right-to-work laws essentially comes down to a matter of individual freedom. It is a freedom that Washington state should embrace.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker this week is expected to sign right-to-work legislation, an act that will mean 25 states have adopted such laws. With half the states joining the right-to-work parade — and several others queueing up — a symbolic milestone in the argument over the role of labor unions will have been passed. Equally notable, a symbolic dagger will have been hurled at the power of those unions.
Right-to-work laws basically say that employees in unionized shops can choose to not join the union and to not pay union dues. The legislation was made possible by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which was passed by Congress over a veto from President Harry S. Truman. Without a right-to-work law, unions and employers can legally agree to a closed shop in which employees must be members of the union as a condition of employment.
That is where freedom comes in. Compelling employees to pay union dues — which often go, in part, to support political causes and candidates the employee might or might not agree with — is an affront to the workers’ freedom of speech and freedom of association. It is an affront to the workers’ ability to choose how to spend the money they have earned.
But, as mentioned, there are many intricacies involved. Labor unions, understandably, long have railed against right-to-work laws as those laws have chipped away at the power of organized labor. As The Washington Post wrote this week, “As more and more workers benefit from collective bargaining without paying for its upkeep, unions have become weaker, which lessens the incentive to join. The resulting tailspin, writ large, has been primarily responsible for the massive decline in unionization over the past half-century — making the struggle to stave off right-to-work laws a fight for union survival.”
There are, however, other factors in the decline of unions, primarily a long string of federal legislation that has improved workplace conditions and protections for workers. With limits on hours worked and strict safety regulations and minimum-wage rules, government over the past century has somewhat eliminated the need for organized labor. That is not to diminish the role that unions have played in this country. The 40-hour work week, guaranteed days off, and even lunch breaks all can be at least partly attributed to the role that organized labor has played over the decades. That also is not to diminish the role that unions have played in establishing the middle class that turned the United States into the world’s most powerful economic engine.
But even with the middle class devolving, and even with the need for changes in our economic structure to rebuild that middle class and ensure continued prosperity, it is difficult to develop a cogent argument against right-to-work laws. It is difficult to develop an argument that suggests employees should be required to join a union as a prerequisite for employment. Unions can still play an important role in protecting workers, yet they should have to sell employees on the benefits of organizing rather than being allowed to force workers to sign up.
The Washington Legislature, working in what has traditionally been a strong pro-labor state, has in recent years broached the right-to-work wave, but to no avail. In the coming years, it should follow the lead of Wisconsin and other states that have acted to increase the freedom of workers.