Michigan’s abolition of Rand formula encourages workplace free-loaders.
by Marc Zwelling
In mid-December, Michigan’s legislature unexpectedly passed a pair of employer-friendly bills (public and private sector) that ban union-shop provisions in union contracts. Michigan workers don’t need to belong to a union in order to get hired at a union shop, and they can now opt out of paying union dues.
The Michigan bid to let employees opt out of union dues came as a shock. No other state bordering Canada has done this across the board, although Wisconsin banned obligatory dues check-offs from wages for most government employees in 2011.
Canada’s far-right politicians leapt to attention. Ontario opposition leader Tim Hudak had earlier announced a ban on mandatory check-offs as the centerpiece of his economic development policies.
The requirement that employees pay dues — or quit — has been a standard feature of union agreements since the 1950’s in Canada and the US. Knowing that all workers will pay union dues gives the union financial security and predictable revenue.
Conversely, if employees can opt out of paying dues to the union that negotiates for them, employers may be tempted to reward their workers — or lean on them — to forsake the union.
In American states that prohibit dues shops, some employees opt to have management deduct dues from their pay in the run-up to bargaining so they can join the union and vote on the new contract. Afterward, membership and dues fall off.
Right wingers promote this union-busting technique with gold-plated spin, calling the legislation “right to work” laws. And they ask, shouldn’t everyone have the right to work without having to pay dues, especially if they don’t even want a union?
The argument for mandatory dues is that employees who opt out of dues don’t opt out of the wages, benefits and other advantages the union gets them. Labour laws certify unions as bargaining agents for a group of workers and require the union to represent them all fairly. The upshot is that, if a dues-evader is unfairly fired, the law compels the union to defend that person, and maybe spend thousands of dollars to get the freeloader’s job back.
Until recently, most Canadian right wingers haven’t seen union-bashing as a successful political platform. But the public’s poor impression of union leaders gives the right wing an opening too tempting to ignore. The logical arguments for mandatory dues are no match for the emotional tug of a values-laden label like “right to work.”
In a 2011 Nanos Research poll for the management-leaning Labour Watch website, 42 percent of the public felt unions have a negative impact on “the ability for a business to compete” (51 percent said a positive impact).
While 70 percent of union members in the same poll would stay union “if you were given a choice in your current job,” only 33 percent of former union members would have a union. Just 18 percent of workers who’ve never been unionized said they want one. (The inclusion of managers and other exempt employees in the survey’s sample may have served to suppress the level of interest in a union.)
How many unionized employees would take advantage of a law letting them escape dues? No one can predict. In a dues-optional world, unions might carry out effective appeals to keep nearly all dues-payers contributing.
There are signals, however, that a fifth to a third might cancel their check-off. In the Nanos poll, 83 percent of members said they pay dues and are also “an actual member” of the union" while 17 percent said they pay but had not signed a membership card.
An August 2012 Forum Research poll found less than half of Canadians approve of "mandatory union dues for members" (48 percent) while 39 percent disapprove (“Do you approve or disapprove of mandatory union dues for members?”). Another 13 percent had no opinion.
In right-to-work states in 2010, according to US labour department surveys, 6.5 percent of workers belong to a union, half the level in other states — 13.8 percent.
After the governor of Indiana signed an executive order making dues optional for state workers in 2005, membership in the state employees’ union dropped from 16,408 to 1,490 in 2010, a 91 percent decline.
Canadian opinion surveys show the public’s ambivalence toward unions, animosity toward union leaders and exasperation with strikes, especially by public sector workers.
In a 2011 Ipsos Reid national survey just 16 percent said they trust union leaders, who ranked 25th in a list of 26 occupations, trailed only by “car salespeople.”
The public’s top likes are pharmacists (78 percent trust them), doctors (75 percent), “Canadian soldiers” (74 percent) and airline pilots (73 percent).
In a 2011 Forum Research national poll 70 percent favoured the Harper government’s back-to-work legislation “to end the strike at Canada Post” (30 percent opposed).
In an Ipsos Reid national poll in August 2012, 71 percent agreed (36 percent strongly) that “teachers should be considered an essential service and therefore should not have the right to strike.”
In a Forum Research national poll the same month, 57 percent said the federal government should legislate employees back to work if there are strikes at airlines, railroads and the post office.
A November Forum poll in Ontario found 62 percent disapproved of public secondary school teachers’ withdrawing extracurricular activities to protest the new provincial legislation that suspends teacher strikes for two years and lets the government impose contracts when negotiations fail.
Days after Michigan passed right-to-work, labour leaders in Canada were scrambling to defend the Rand Formula, named for Supreme Court of Canada justice Ivan Rand, who required every employee to pay dues in a landmark arbitration case in 1946. The worn-out argument some union leaders favour, that right-to-work is “the right to work cheap,” doesn’t cut it. Worse, it’s free advertising for the hard right wing’s most effective slogan. To attack “right to work” means repeating it, like helping the hunter find the prey.
The problem for unions is that their opponents are telling labour’s story. Arch-conservatives believe and preach that voluntary dues would usher in a roaring economy with huge inflows of job-creating investments by employers yearning to live union-free.
Canada’s anti-dues lobby also likes talking points about “choice,” “freedom” and “modernizing our labour laws.” These seductive scripts position unions as enemies of freedom and progress.
How should unions debunk right-to-work? What doesn’t work is research refuting the job growth records of US states where employees can by-pass union dues. As linguist George Lakoff advises, logic doesn’t persuade. Facts don’t convince. It’s how the facts are framed that counts.
What’s required instead is invoking arguments based on values. The key is to put the right wing on the defensive morally. Labour needs to frame dues shop opponents as hypocrites who would enable free-loaders to get union benefits without paying for them. Let conservatives defend dues chiselers and spongers.
The good argument for the dues shop is ethical: letting employees evade dues is morally wrong. Employees who don’t want to pay dues, want other employees to pick up the cheque.
Unions work for improved working conditions for all the workers in their jurisdiction, whether those workers are union members or not. Free riders who take advantage of union services and benefits, but refuse to pay dues to support the union, are like deadbeat dads who still want to have final say in all decisions about the children.
For politicians to condone (let alone promote) such a practice is a kind of corruption. They are facilitating a game rigged so that a few people accumulate disproportionate wealth while a great many have difficulty putting away any money at all, no matter how hard they work.
For too long hard right’s fictions have dominated the discussion about dues. The sudden union-busting move in Michigan should put unions on alert. They need to be rhetorically prepared to refute spin with their own values-based talking points, such as suggesting that, “We don’t permit people to take merchandise out of a mall without paying, just because they don’t like the store owners.” Of course, to fight dues dodgers effectively, unions must polish their own images, and recognize that their own performance is lagging when it comes to defending their brand.© Copyright 2012, All rights Reserved. StraightGoods.ca