No. Fostering a healthy economy, not compulsory union membership, will bid up wages
By MARK GLENNON
My first job experience illustrates many of the issues. Tens of thousands whose first work was bagging groceries can probably relate to this.
For me, it was at the Jewel in South Chicago Heights. After a couple days on the job, a tough-looking guy came out from the back with forms to sign. He was the union rep with the paperwork for the payroll deduction.
“What if I don’t want to sign these?” I asked.
“Well, kid, you know how most baggers later move into the produce department and get a raise?” He asked. ”It’s not gonna happen to you.”
I was naïve and shouldn't even have asked. Most adults know what it means to try to say no to the union rep. I was marked, even though I signed the forms, and had I stayed there long it would have cost me.
Today, Illinois workers have the right to opt out of paying the portion of dues that goes to political activities, but you'd still be naïve to think that's real. Cross the union and you're marked.
The controversy goes beyond the portion of dues that go to political activities.
It’s about “freedom of association” – at least that’s how the courts phrase it. The Janus case recently heard in the United States Supreme Court will tell us whether forced dues and forced membership in public unions is a violation of freedom of association, a right the courts have long recognized under the First Amendment.
It’s a simple but profound issue of individual freedom: Why should you be forced to pay to be represented by an organization you may disagree with, or even despise?
Gary Casteel, the Southern region director for the United Auto Workers, put it his way:
“This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right to work hurts unions. To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So, if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”
Freedom of association, however, isn’t the only issue.
How did we get many of the things breaking Illinois and most of our towns and cities — unaffordable pensions, rigged collective bargaining, burdensome work rules and broken prevailing wage rules?
You’d have to be as naïve as I was at that first job not to know the answer: cash and clout that comes from forced union dues and influence.
In Illinois and some other states, public union power has simply gone too far. Here, less than 3 percent of our population is a member of a public union. The balance of power is wrong.
Unions argue that workers who opt fully out of membership become “free riders,” the reason being that whatever contract the unions negotiate binds all workers, even in right-to-work states.
But that is a problem that unions themselves created, which could be easily fixed. They lobbied for the very laws giving them a monopoly to represent all workers in Illinois. That monopoly means unions represent members and non-members alike.
The answer is something called “Workers’ Choice,” which means giving workers two options: a) pay dues and be covered by whatever the union negotiates, or b) opt out of union representation altogether.
That’s why eliminating compulsory union membership hardly means the end of unions. About four million workers are unionized in states where union membership is optional. Some right-to-work states have even seen increased union activity, though those numbers are contested. Either way, however, the numbers are clear that workers can and do bargain collectively when they feel they need to, even without compulsory membership.
This debate is partly academic because the Supreme Court is expected to rule against compulsory union membership in the Janus case no later than June 30. That’s for public unions but the tide is turning for the private sector as well. It then won’t matter what “should be.” Instead, the question will become, “What will be?”
My hope is unions will make the best of the new reality by seeking common ground with those of us who think there’s a better route to higher wages and reduced inequality.
That better route is putting bargaining power in the hands of workers by fostering a healthy economy that bids up wages and makes employers compete for workers.
A bottoms-up recovery like that is no fantasy, and you need only go a few miles into Wisconsin, a right-to-work state, to see it. Try to find a carpenter there, or a contractor for a renovation, an electrician for a large project or workers in any number of other trades. Good luck. I’ve done it recently. For some trades, you’ll be lucky to get a return phone call. Their prices, consequently, have gone up. Good for them. Wall Street might not like wage inflation but that’s the problem we should want to have.
What’s more, workers there carry a lower overall tax burden than in Illinois. Pensions are fully funded and will be paid. Schools open on time. Government functions properly.
Fighting to keep compulsory union membership is fighting the last war. It’s time to move forward over common ground.
Mark Glennon is founder and executive editor of Wirepoints, an independent research, commentary and news organization focusing on Illinois issues. He wrote this column at the request of the Illinois Business Journal.