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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press "Right to Work" Versus Freedom to Contract

"Right to Work" Versus Freedom to Contract

Wednesday, 23 February 2011 05:39

The hoary phrase "right to work" has been appearing frequently in news reporting on the efforts by many Republican governors to weaken the power of public sector workers. This phrase, while very useful for opponents of unions, fundamentally misrepresents what is at issue.

There are absolutely no circumstances in which someone is denied the "right to work" in the absence of the laws that go under this name. These laws are actually about restricting the freedom of contract. Under U.S. labor law, unions are required to represent all the workers in a bargaining unit that they represent, regardless of whether or not they belong to the union.

This means that workers who opt not to join a union still benefit from the union's representation. This is true both in the sense that non-members get the same contract that union members receive (the contract can't specify one wage scale for union members and another for non-members) and also the union is required to defend the rights guaranteed to non-members on the contract. For example, if a non-member is fired or in any other way sanctioned, the union is required under the law to defend their rights as described in the contract.

In other words, U.S. labor law requires that the union incur costs to represent workers in a bargaining unit whether or not they choose to join the union. Not surprisingly, unions like to sign contracts that require workers to pay for this representation. This is a condition of employment just like employers impose conditions of employment (you don't like the pay, go work somewhere else).

So called "right to work" laws prohibit unions and employers from signing contracts that require workers to pay for their union representation. In this sense they could more accurately be termed "right to freeload," since they guarantee that workers will have the opportunity to benefit from union representation without paying for it.

Comments (9)Add Comment
Right-to-Work Trumps Right-to-Pee Freeloading Shirkers
written by izzatzo, February 23, 2011 8:17
A serious problem in today's workplace is known among economists as Pee Shirking, or the right to pee which has been abused by union contracts to the point that it interferes with the right to not pee and continue working all day with no pee break.

This is particularly damaging to government union employees whose pay is based on units of piece work rather than hourly pay.

For example, a high performer in say, teabagger regulation, can create uncertainty for over a thousand teabaggers a day without peeing while one who takes regular pee breaks can suppress incentives of only 750 teabaggers a day.

Under the Obama Competitiveness Productivity Plan, right-to-work laws are essential to increased productivity of government workers, not just workers in the private sector.

Let government work like it should with right-to-not-pee laws, so that productivity and growth will increase with bloated bubbled bladders and no longer be suppressed by freeloading pee 'ers who just crowd out non-pee 'ers and drive up inflation and interest rates.
fight fire with fire
written by frankenduf, February 23, 2011 8:29
i like the other end of the spectrum propaganda term "wage slavery"- this term was meant to debunk the concept of "right to work" in the pre union labor market, as workers had no real rights, and so in some ironic sense were no better off than the slaves, who also obviously did not collectively bargain until other citizens organized a functional abolitionist movement
CEPR funding?, Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Jeff Z, February 23, 2011 9:45
Right. And the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation are bastions of pure objective research by comparison.

Unions continue to have a place, especially now, simply because it is even more obvious that the equality of bargaining power is an illusion.
written by Jay, February 23, 2011 10:06
I will never understand the hostility towards collective bargaining. I would think most people would have worked enough to experience the need for solidarity in a bad, soul sapping work environment. Then again, the spirited minority always has a way of amplifying their views to the point one believes it is the voice of the majority, and if people hear it long enough they start to believe the rabble rousing. I paid union dues and I didn't elect to join. The union seemed too scared to confront management and it kind of made me want my minor dues back. But then again, having some protection from arbitrary termination was nice.
written by urban legend, February 23, 2011 4:40
And remember that while members of a collective bargaining unit rightly are prevented from freeloading on the costs of bargaining and representation against unlawful termination -- and the contract by law rightly may not discriminate against non-members of the union -- the non-member may choose not to pay for political activities by the union.
Don't Economists Have a Term of Art for Right to Work
written by Ron Alley, February 23, 2011 7:45
Right to work laws are not about rights or about work. They are about about making union representation a benefit that workers are not required to pay for. In essence, right to work laws convert union representation (a service that many have paid a high price for) into what I believe economists call "free goods".
It's not all that simple, actually
written by Bill H, February 24, 2011 12:55
The term originates to a time when one could not go to work in a "closed shop" unless one was a member of the union which represented that business, and joining the union was not always possible. In order to keep wages high, that is as a means of limiting availability of labor, unions restricted membership. So a worker who wanted to work but was not allowed to join a union because it was currently closed to new members was denied the "right to work." So the "right to work" law simply means that a union contract cannot require union membership in order to work at a specific place of business, and it is overwhelmingly a good law. That it allows workers to obtain a free ride on the collective bargaining of the union is unfortunate, but it is preferable to the alternative.

Discussion of today's labor issues are also often clouded by failing to differentiating between the two terms "collective bargaining" and "labor union." One can have the former without the latter, and all too often the later seriously corrupts the former when the paid officials of the union work in their own financial interest instead of the best interest of the members they are supposed to represent.
Public labor unions - why ?
written by Jonas, February 28, 2011 3:32
The fact is that a union can sign a contract which forces a non union member to pay their hard earned cash to the union. So, we can agree to call this something other than "right to work", but it still sucks.

And another thing: the public service unions which work for state governments (e.g. a prison guard union) aren't exactly a force for good.

In California, neither Democrat nor Republican governors nor the "all powerful" public referendum process have been able to eliminate unnecessary incarceration. This means, an unnecessarily large part of the California population is in prison for life. You get one guess as to where the prison guard union stands on attempts to reform California's prison system and modify three strikes law.

And you want to *support* these kinds of unions?

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.