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Right-to-Work: Freeloading or Just Freedom?

BY MIKE NICHOLS | Dec. 15, 2014

Many years ago, after taking a job as a young reporter at the old Milwaukee Journal, the union leaders in the newsroom — using tactics that were somewhere between cajoling and arm-twisting — tried to persuade me to join The Newspaper Guild, a union affiliate of the Communications Workers of America.

They were nice guys, my union friends. But it was clear they thought anyone who didn't hand over some cash in the form of dues was a freeloader. Their argument: Because the paper was (and still is) a unionized "open shop," employees didn't have to pay dues if they didn't want to. But because a majority of newsroom employees had once voted in favor of the union, the union leaders represented everyone.

Even if you don't pay the union, you'll still be part of the "bargaining unit," the union leaders would argue. You'll still "benefit" from the collective bargaining process. So pony up.

I declined for a variety of reasons. The union, I concluded, wasn't boosting my pay. It was holding it down by repeatedly asking the company to spend whatever money was available on across-the-board salary increases rather than just merit pay; if I screwed up somehow, I wanted to speak for myself; if I was going to donate money to a cause (something reporters and columnists are normally dissuaded from doing) I didn't want that cause to be part of a national union that pushed a political agenda I disagreed with.

I never did join the union. I also never stopped wondering how in the world union leaders had the right to represent me at the bargaining table if I didn't want them to.

The answer might surprise some people and shed some light on just what right-to-work legislation would mean for workers in this state — and what it wouldn't.

Right-to-work legislation would have absolutely no impact on so-called "open shops" such as the one in the Journal Sentinel newsroom, according to Fred Gants, a Madison labor and employment lawyer for Quarles and Brady.

Right-to-work legislation, according to Gants, would only prevent companies and unions from setting up "union" shops, also sometimes referred to as "agency shops"— places where employees must pay union dues (at least that portion of dues that is not spent on political causes or lobbying) as a condition of employment.

In other words, even if right-to-work legislation is adopted, Wisconsin workers will still be able to form and join unions if they so choose. And under federal law, once a union is formed, it would still bargain on behalf of its non-union co-workers. The only difference: Nobody could be forced to pay dues. All union shops would become open.

The burgeoning debate over right-to-work is really over two different things: the rights that workers, either as individuals or collectively, should have in the workplace; and whether right-to-work states are more conducive or less conducive to long-term prosperity.

Long before specific legislation has even been introduced, my old friends on the Editorial Board at the paper have already stated that they "don't think workplace freedom is the real objective here" and that Wisconsin should "forget this sideshow."

Sidestepping the issue of individual rights, they've cherry-picked old studies that have nothing to do with Wisconsin, and seem to have determined there is no link between right-to-work laws and economic growth. In truth, there are reputable studies that conclude such laws have been economically advantageous. Because various studies conflict in some ways, because times change and because Wisconsin is a very unique place, there is a need to seriously examine the specific impact a right-to-work law might have here in the Badger State at this particular point in history.

Right-to-work laws have been adopted in Michigan and Indiana as well as about half of the other states in America. Is Wisconsin right now at a competitive disadvantage?

Do Wisconsinites see this as an economic issue, an issue of individual rights, or both?

The only thing that would have bothered me more than being forced into the bargaining unit would have been being forced to pay dues. Many people in Wisconsin's newsrooms clearly disagree. But all that really matters is what everyone else in the state thinks, and whether right-to-work laws are good for both Wisconsin as a whole as well as its individual citizens. At the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, we are thoroughly examining both issues and encourage others to do the same.

We all have our history and experiences. Let's be upfront about them, and then do our best to determine the right course.

Mike Nichols is president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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