Mises Wire

To solve the free-rider problem, end monopoly unionization

To solve the free-rider problem, end monopoly unionization

Mandatory union dues are again at issue. On the heels of contentious “right to work” disputes, the Supreme Court heard arguments challenging an Illinois mandate requiring home healthcare workers to pay representation fees to a union they did not want. Harris v. Quinn could even challenge the Court’s 1977 Aboud precedent upholding mandatory union dues for public sector workers.

The union and allies reiterate the claim, accepted in Aboud, that “union security” rules are needed to prevent workers from unfairly opting out of paying for union services. But that claim is seriously flawed.

“Union security” rules are clear violations of workers’ liberty, particularly their freedom to not be forced to associate with certain groups, which unions ironically steamroll in the name of freedom of association. So unions defend coercion to impose employment terms violating government’s primary role–protecting individual rights—with a “free- rider” argument.

Labor laws have made unions exclusive representatives for groups of workers. Therefore, unions assert that that every worker must be forced to pay for their representation, or they will be able to “free ride” on those services. That is, workers’ rights must be abrogated to prevent non-members’ unethical behavior.

But free-riding on unions is not the fundamental problem. Mandatory exclusive representation–monopoly unions (so obviously monopolies that pro-union legislation exempted unions from antitrust laws, or they would have been illegal)—imposed to the detriment of those not in the majority is the fundamental problem.

Given majority approval in a certification election, all affected workers are required to submit to union representation and pay the union’s price for it. Those terms are imposed not only on workers who voted for the union, but for those who supported another union, those who preferred remaining union-free and those who did not vote (including those hired after the union is certified, who never get an effective chance to vote). Workers and employers are prohibited from negotiating their own arrangements, including labor-management cooperation not controlled by the union and “yellow-dog” agreements requiring abstention from union involvement (which, before labor laws eliminated such rights, the Supreme Court called “part of the constitutional rights of personal liberty and private property”).

The supposed “free-riding” workers are those who would refuse union representation, but are not allowed to. They are harmed by the imposition, revealed by their unwillingness to pay the “price” for those services. They are not free-riding on the union. They are “forced riders,” required to abide by, and pay for, violations of their rights and interests, to benefit unions. That violation of workers’ rights, not their attempts to minimize the harm imposed on them, is the central issue.

Despite their rhetoric, unions don’t really want to solve the “free rider” problem they hang their argument on, because it is easily fixable, but unions stop at nothing to prevent the solution. All it would take is ending exclusive union representation. If workers were allowed to choose representation by different unions, or negotiate for themselves, the problem would disappear. Each union would only negotiate for its voluntary members, eliminating free riders. But unions have fought with tooth, nail and their members’ wallets to impose and maintain exclusive representation, knowingly harming all dissenters and thereby creating the “free rider” problem. And their recent behavior, as in Michigan, reveals how far they will go to maintain that power to circumvent competition in the labor markets they control, now largely in the public sector.

Requiring exclusive union representation violates America’s founding principles, unfairly transferring dissenting workers’ rights to union leaders. Only those who benefit from that abuse—unions that harm dissenting workers, non-union workers and consumers (taxpayers, in public sector employment)—can object to restoring those workers’ rights. That is why Harris v. Quinn, which offers the Court another chance to see through the “free-rider” smokescreen to the central issue, presents an opportunity for a reform that would benefit the vast majority of Americans.

Photo Credit: Mike Fleming

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