Say yes to right-to-work

  • Article by: KIM CROCKETT
  • Updated: February 18, 2012 - 4:28 PM

It would provide a boost for the economy and keep unions properly focused. But most important, workers deserve the right to choose.

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When I was 18, broke and on my own, I got a job as a nurse's aide. It was 1979; the "misery index" was high and jobs for young people were scarce. The very stern head of nursing informed me that her nurses were unionized. I was crushed to learn that union dues would be deducted from my pay along with taxes. I told her I didn't want to join; I needed every penny I earned. She told me that if I wanted the job, I had to join.

If the job market had not been so tight, I would have walked out of her office, humming "take this job and ..." But I needed that job, so I joined. I kept thinking I'd hear from the union; they didn't write, they didn't call. I often thought of the union while eating ramen noodles (again!). I worked hard and got myself into college and eventually law school. But I've never forgotten how I felt that day.

Our Legislature is considering a bill that would give Minnesota an opportunity to become a "right to work" state. If the sponsors can find enough brave souls to vote for the bill (called "Employee Freedom"), voters will be asked to amend the state Constitution to give all employees the freedom to join, or not join, a labor union. It would not ban private or public labor unions. It would not ban collective bargaining. All it would do is give you the right to decide.

RTW is a proposed amendment rather than a statute for two reasons. First, supporters know that Gov. Mark Dayton would veto a RTW law, so that political exercise is pointless.

It is hard to find any daylight between Dayton's DFL Party and unions -- especially public unions. But the governor cannot veto a ballot measure.

Second and more important, supporters view this as a fundamental right that belongs in the Constitution. We should have the right to freely associate or not associate with a union. Except for taxes, we should have the right to decide who gets a cut of our paychecks. Forcing people to join unions -- or to pay a "fair share" of dues -- violates these rights. It's like taxation without representation.

It might surprise you to know that 23 out of 50 states are right-to-work states. The last three states to join were Indiana, which adopted RTW just this year, Oklahoma (2001) and Idaho (1986). Some of our neighbors adopted RTW laws years ago (Iowa in 1947, North Dakota in 1961 and South Dakota in 1973). Michigan is considering joining the RTW club. We compete with these states for employee talent, investment and jobs.

According to Rasmussen Reports, voters overwhelmingly support the idea that employees should not be forced to pay union dues (75 percent). Even 65 percent of union members agree. Why? Because people like to be asked for their money, and they want something of value in return. Forced union dues feel like a stickup.

Union agendas are often at odds with employees' agendas because unions get paid whether members think they are doing a good job or not. RTW changes this dynamic and gets unions focused on members as customers.

Think of the unions as a business offering a service in exchange for a fee. Employees can purchase the services of a union to handle negotiations with the employer. If the union is delivering value, employees will be loyal customers. If the unions are spending a lot of money on politics and policies that an employee opposes, that individual employee can fire the union. Perhaps the sponsors of this measure should add "Union Accountability" to the title.

Yes, there will be some free riders. But if the union is needed and working hard for its dues, most people will pay. A few free riders are a cheap price to pay for freedom.

But what about our standard of living? Does the right to work really mean the right to work for less? The Center of the American Experiment released a study with economist Dr. Richard Vedder, of the American Enterprise Institute, that found that Minnesota has paid a high economic price for not adopting RTW, among other policies that attract and grow business. "Instead of being 14th in the nation in per capita income in 2008, the state would almost certainly have been in the top 10" with RTW, he writes. Such a difference could mean thousands of dollars in wages. It also could mean more jobs to choose from. If you don't like your job or your boss, you could find another one.

Common sense dictates that RTW is only part of the formula for a healthy economy. But Employee Freedom could give us a much-needed boost.

Suppose Minnesota had been a RTW state in 1970s when I was a young nurse's aide. A strong case can be made that Minnesota would have enjoyed greater private sector growth -- and we would have been better positioned for any downturns in the economy. It's even possible that Minnesota would have a higher private unionization rate today. That's because we would have retained more manufacturing, for example. Our private unionization rate has fallen to less than 10 percent in part because we lost industries that offer the kind of jobs that can support a family.

Public unions, however, have grown along with our public sector. The state is the largest employer in Minnesota (54,900 people). A whopping 89 percent of state employees are in a union. Minnesota's public union participation rate dwarfs our neighbors' -- even Wisconsin's. Vedder noted: "Public unions are especially troubling in states without a RTW law because they represent an agreement between two monopoly providers. ... This can lead to above-market compensation levels for employees and sharply higher costs of providing public services."

We'd still have public unions under RTW. But if Minnesota's experience followed other states', the percentage of union participation would drop dramatically. That would mean a more nimble, less expensive state. Just as there is a disconnect between unions and their members, there is a disconnect between unions and the taxpayers/voters who foot the bill for state government.

So back to 1979 when my options were limited. What if Minnesota had been a RTW state? Perhaps upon talking to the union sales rep, I would have decided to join and pay dues even if it meant more ramen noodles for dinner. If I had declined to join, the hospital and I would have worked out our own deal. Perhaps my skills and hard work would have been rewarded with higher pay, perhaps not.

But I would have been free to choose.

Kim Crockett is the chief operating officer and general counsel at Center of the American Experiment, where she directs the Minnesota Free Market Institute.

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