The weak support for mandatory payments to unions


James M. Hohman, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Michigan’s Democratic majority lawmakers demand that people working in unionized private sector workplaces pay unions to keep their jobs. That’s what repealing the state’s right-to-work law will accomplish, but you’d never know that from what legislators have said.

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks said repealing right-to-work means Democrats are “standing strong for working families.” This is a euphemism for forcing people to pay unions.

Forced unionization’s legislative champion, Sen. Darrin Camilleri, said the law will restore workers’ rights. But the right in question is the right to opt out of paying unions without being fired, and repealing right-to-work takes that right away from workers.

Rep. Regina Weiss said the law will “restore Michigan’s promise to working people and working families.” This can only be true if she thinks the state promised to have workers fired for refusing to pay unions.

The law’s allies similarly dodged the point. Ryan Sebolt of the Michigan AFL-CIO says the laws to repeal right-to-work “expand the rights of working people in the state of Michigan.” He never gets around to explaining how firing workers for refusing to pay unions expands their rights.

There is a case that supporters could have made, had they bothered to try to justify the repeal. They could have argued that unions need funds for professional lawyers to negotiate and enforce their contracts, and they would not have the resources to represent members without compulsory support.

That argument would have overstated the case, however, since unions do a lot more than negotiate union contracts. They wouldn’t need lobbyists or paid political activists otherwise. Even looking at purely representational activities, the contracts unions negotiate deal with controversial political issues. These contracts also don’t reward all employees equally; single salary schedules based on seniority benefit older members at the expense of new members, for instance.

Allowing members to opt out of paying unions provides a level of accountability to union actions that helps ensure unions reflect their members’ will. Right-to-work reflects the basic American principle of voluntary association, and union policy, which is currently based on coercion, needs more voluntary association. That’s not even considering the economic benefits the state reaps by allowing people to opt out of paying unions.

Those points and counterpoints are the debate that’s worth having on right-to-work. It was not the debate that happened. If lawmakers thought that workers, the labor force and the state would be better off if people were compelled to contribute to unions, neither they nor their allies explained how or why.

This refusal to discuss or justify the laws’ effects may make people wonder whether lawmakers had another goal with these bills. The U.S. Supreme Court described one potential alternative in its 2018 ruling that state and local governments could not compel the people covered by collective bargaining agreements to pay unions. The high court’s majority noted that all union activities are inherently political, and governments cannot mandate payments to political organizations.

As political organizations, unions tend to support Democrats, regardless of the proportion of their members who vote otherwise. Unions’ political spending, which is only a subset of their total political support, almost exclusively benefits Democrats.

By requiring workers to pay unions, Democrats voted to mandate payments to political organizations that support Democrats.

People might be more inclined to believe that this was not about such crass self-interest if the law’s supporters tried to justify and explain the bill’s mechanics. Instead, its political supporters projected their fantasies onto the bill.

There may be a day when unions behave like voluntary associations and earn their members’ support through finding situations that leave everyone better off. In repealing right-to-work, Michigan legislators have taken us further from that goal. They also did so without ever explaining why forcing people to pay unions is a good idea.

Perhaps that’s because it isn’t a good idea.


James M. Hohman is the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.