Few of the arguments emanating from Michigan’s right-to-work drama are more astounding than the unions railing against “free riders.” This is the argument that non-union employees should be forced to contribute money to the unions (and the government should handle Accounts Receivable by taking it right out of their paychecks) because even non-organized workers benefit from the collective bargaining activities conducted by Big Labor.
As Lachlan Markay of the Heritage Foundation notes, not much of the unions’ “free rider” grousing is factually accurate, and they have weak arguments for the part that is arguable:
Under the National Labor Relations Act, unions are free to represent all employees – not just union members – at the bargaining table. But they are not required to do so.
“The National Labor Relations Act does not mandate unions exclusively represent all employees, but permits them to electively do so,” explained Heritage’s James Sherk in a Monday column. ”Under the Act, unions can also negotiate ‘members-only’ contracts that only cover dues-paying members. They do not have to represent other employees.”
Moreover, the free-rider argument implies that workers’ union dues would go at least predominately toward activities that achieve better compensation or other workplace benefits. But neither is that the case.
In fact, less than a quarter (24.1 percent) of expenditures by Michigan’s 25 largest private sector (or public/private hybrid) union locals go toward actually representing workers, according to those unions’ latest LM-2 filings (obtained via the Labor Department’s website – see spreadsheet below for a more detailed breakdown). The rest goes toward other expenditures, including benefits, political activity, and general overhead.
There’s nothing magical about labor unions, nor is there anything inherently sinister about the concept. They are corporate entities that sell labor to other corporations. The remarkable thing about them is that, in the absence of right-to-work laws, the government uses its power to create a highly restricted market – effectively a monopoly – for the product sold by the union. Not many other corporate entities can boast that its customers are forced to do business with it… and even people who choose not to join the union are compelled to pay for its “services.”
Collective bargaining can work quite well in a variety of business environments, although it’s rather absurd to apply it to public employees, because the end result is the government “bargaining” with itself. The ultimate check on collective bargaining abuses is the same check that exists for all corporate abuses: competition. But somehow the notion of Big Labor competing on a level playing field with those who choose not to join its organizations is considered dangerous and offensive. They simply are not regarded, by most of the media or the political class that exists in symbiosis with them, as comparable to the other corporations they do business with… much less the “special interests” they are among the most powerful examples of. What other corporate entity could get away with the kind of behavior unions have employed in Michigan to protect their special privileges? What company could order its troops to assault people who disagree with its political agenda, without drawing widespread condemnation in the press… which would stop the presses to deliver it?
Unions get to say things nobody else can say, too. Case in point: the “free rider” complaint. We taxpayers have been very sternly instructed that we are not permitted to use such language when discussing government dependents who contribute little or nothing through direct taxation to pay for the system. I’ve often pointed out that such people, like the rest of us, pay a lot of indirect taxes they are barely aware of, and the people who do pay taxes but remain dependent upon government programs are a larger and more intractable problem, but a true dependency class does exist. Anyone who so much as notices them, never mind describes them as “free riders,” is promptly torn to shreds in the media.
So maybe it’s time for we taxpayers to form a union, so we get to call people “free riders” too. We can’t call it the “national taxpayers union” because there already is a National Taxpayers Union. They might be gracious enough to let us borrow their name, but if not, we’ll need a contest to choose a moniker and a snappy logo. (I can already imagine some of the logo submissions we’ll get. Let’s keep it clean, folks. This union is going to be a kid-friendly family operation.)
Then we’ll have to elect some union leadership, just like the AFL-CIO or the Teamsters. Oh, boy, is that going to be fun! Warning: the winners probably won’t get paid as well as regular union bosses do. We taxpayers are on a tight budget these days, you see.
We already know who we’ll be collectively bargaining with: the federal government. We all work for them anyway, don’t we? “You didn’t build that… someone else made that happen.” Let’s give our greedy, high-living fat-cat bosses in Washington a taste of good old-fashioned Big Labor “negotiating,” complete with the freedom of rhetoric and action that only Big Labor currently seems to enjoy.