Right-to-work now a tar­get?

Ne­vada Democrats risk prob­lems if they re­peal the statute

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - VIEWPOINTS - RICHARD EP­STEIN

IN Novem­ber, Democrats took con­trol over the Gov­er­nor’s Man­sion and so­lid­i­fied their con­trol of the state Se­nate and the As­sem­bly. In the heady after­glow of their vic­tory, there is talk the Leg­is­la­ture may choose to re­visit one of the long­time sta­ples of Ne­vada’s la­bor law, its right-to-work law.

Since 1952, the law has blocked any pact whereby em­ploy­ers agree with unions not to hire any­one who re­fuses to join a union or pay fees in lieu of union dues. The ar­gu­ment that union in­ter­ests make for re­peal is fa­mil­iar: The union ex­pends hard cash to get ben­e­fits for nonunion mem­bers, who should not be al­lowed a free ride on union ef­forts. Those who ben­e­fit should be made to pay.

In­deed the na­tional AFL-CIO puts the position in stark us vs. them terms: “The real pur­pose of right-to-work laws is to tilt the balance to­ward big corporations and fur­ther rig the sys­tem at the ex­pense of work­ing fam­i­lies. Th­ese laws make it harder for work­ing peo­ple to form unions and col­lec­tively bar­gain for bet­ter wages, ben­e­fits and work­ing con­di­tions.”

To take this state­ment at face value is to think that the case against right-towork is a no-brainer. But if that were the case, it would be hard to ex­plain why in the past decade the trend na­tion­ally has run strongly in the op­po­si­tion di­rec­tion. Thus, at present, some 27 states have in place right-to-work laws, with the ad­di­tion of six states, largely in the Mid­west, in the past eight years. The num­ber had been 28, but large union con­tri­bu­tions in Mis­souri re­cently led to the re­peal of that state’s statute. By the same to­ken, how­ever, none of the right-to-work states in the South has un­done such laws, as re­peated ef­forts — for ex­am­ple, by the UAW to or­ga­nize Volk­swa­gen in Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee — have fallen short. In ex­plain­ing away this re­sult, Peo­ple’s World, a strong pro-union pub­li­ca­tion, un­in­ten­tion­ally gave away the game when in frus­tra­tion it ob­served rue­fully that “the South is the na­tion’s fastest-growing and least-union­ized re­gion.”

What union sup­port­ers miss is that cor­re­la­tion has deep causal roots. The South is growing pre­cisely be­cause it has very low lev­els of union pen­e­tra­tion. Right-to-work states do a bet­ter job in at­tract­ing firms. Here’s why.

It is no se­cret that em­ploy­ers are of­ten op­posed to unions — and for the ob­vi­ous rea­sons. Ne­go­ti­at­ing a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment with any union can be costly, frus­trat­ing and time-con­sum­ing. The abil­ity of a union to call a strike is a con­stant threat that in­duces em­ploy­ers to give work­ers higher wages than they of­fer in com­pet­i­tive mar­kets. Worse still, the union agree­ments tend to limit the flex­i­bil­ity of firms in re­or­ga­niz­ing their pro­duc­tion lines or in­tro­duc­ing new tech­nolo­gies. The ba­sic rule un­der the Na­tional La­bor Re­la­tions Act is that any ma­te­rial change in the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment can made only with union con­sent, which is fre­quently with­held un­less some quid pro quo is re­ceived in ex­change.

All of th­ese im­ped­i­ments to pro­duc­tion tend to drive firms away from states that have laws fa­vor­ing union or­ga­ni­za­tion. The mas­sive shrink­age in UAW mem­ber­ship in Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin, for ex­am­ple, in­duced both states to adopt right-to-work laws in or­der to pre­vent a fur­ther hem­or­rhag­ing of their lo­cal work­forces. It is there­fore idle for any union to claim that the only con­se­quences of union­iza­tion are bar­gains “for bet­ter wages, ben­e­fits and work­ing con­di­tions.”

Ag­gres­sive union moves to ob­tain th­ese gains for their mem­bers of­ten come at a very high price. In the ex­treme, some firms may be forced into bank­ruptcy or be re­quired to make ma­jor job cuts when they are un­able to keep profit mar­gins in ever more com­pet­i­tive prod­uct mar­kets. Short of that, the lo­cal econ­omy could stag­nate as a union­ized firm will de­cide to open new plants in or take new busi­ness to right-to-work states. The AFL-CIO does not like to talk about the sim­ple point that its ranks have dwin­dled from about 34 per­cent of the pri­vate la­bor force in 1954 to about 6 per­cent to­day. The usual ex­pla­na­tion is im­pla­ca­ble em­ployer hos­til­ity. But em­ploy­ers fac­ing an or­ga­niz­ing drive com­mit no un­fair la­bor prac­tice when they point to the firms that have failed be­cause they signed oner­ous col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments.

Those sto­ries are not lost on work­ers when faced with the ques­tion of whether to sup­port or join a union. The dis­si­dent work­ers may be in some cases free rid­ers. But the re­al­ity is far more com­plex than unions would have us be­lieve.

First, work­ers who stay out of a union lose any and all con­trol over union ac­tiv­i­ties, which means that their dis­sent­ing voices are not heard in for­mu­lat­ing union poli­cies. Sec­ond, many of th­ese work­ers stay out be­cause they strongly dis­agree with the dom­i­nant union bar­gain­ing strat­egy. It makes per­fectly good sense for some work­ers to re­sist high pay in the short run if they think it can lead to long-run firm fail­ure.

More specif­i­cally, work­ers with ac­cu­mu­lated se­nior­ity might be wil­ing to bar­gain hard be­cause they think they will be hap­pily re­tired when the firm fails. But younger work­ers with longer time horizons could eas­ily take the position that lower wages and greater job sta­bil­ity are the win­ning com­bi­na­tion. So long as union gov­er­nance re­mains in the hands of work­ers with high se­nior­ity, it makes good sense for the dis­si­dents to opt out, which is what right-to-work lets them do.

Iron­i­cally, right-to-work laws of­ten help union stal­warts as well, for once unions are faced with the risk of de­fec­tion, they of­ten al­ter their ways.

Thus they lower their salaries and re­duce union dues in or­der to keep work­ers in their unions. It is worth re­mem­ber­ing that com­pe­ti­tion im­proves the per­for­mance of unions as well as that of firms.

So while it may be tempt­ing for Ne­vada’s leg­isla­tive Democrats to heed the union’s clar­ion call, they should re­mem­ber that to­day’s rip­pling pub­lic dis­con­tent with Don­ald Trump won’t keep them in of­fice to­mor­row. In­deed, the party could pave the road to its own de­feat by seek­ing re­peal of Ne­vada’s long-stand­ing right-to-work law.

Tim Brin­ton

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.