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Free-riding on the labor movement

We all benefit from what organized labor has accomplished

September 1, 2014 6:00AM ET

American communities depend on collective action. Fire and police departments are great examples: They can function successfully because all of us pay in — not only those whose houses have burned down or been burglarized. 

These institutions work on the principle that the most effective way to protect individual interests is for all to contribute a little for the common benefit. When someone doesn’t contribute, everyone suffers. If someone didn’t want to chip in for firefighters or police officers but still expected the benefits of these collective protections, they would be considered freeloaders, and their behavior would be rightly vilified.

Yet when it comes to the labor movement, free-riding is exactly the response that conservatives are encouraging.

Throughout the country, Republicans have been pushing to expand “right to work” laws, which force unions to represent employees who do not pay to receive these benefits. It’s as if people were allowed to avoid paying in for firefighters yet the fire department were still required to serve them.

Whether they actively participate or not, individuals in a workplace where a union is present benefit from collective organization. On average, workers covered by union contracts have wages 13.6 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts’. Conservatives disingenuously advocate that employees opt out from paying for such collective benefits without acknowledging how this undermines improved conditions for all. In short, they are calling for free-riding.

This Labor Day, we should affirm the benefits that unions have created — not only for their members but for all working people in America.

We brought you the weekend

In 2012, Indiana and Michigan passed “right to work” laws obligating unions to represent workers whether or not they pay into collective organizations. Since then, there has been a push to pass similar measures throughout the country, with at least 21 other states debating whether to follow suit.

“Right to work” supporters present their position as promoting free choice for employees, but in fact, their advocacy is clearly designed for the benefit of employers. By weakening collective institutions, employers gain the right to pay whatever they want as long as they meet minimum wage requirements, without significant input from those they hire. The result is downward pressure on wages.

Union members were 53.9 percent more likely to have a pension and 28.2 percent more likely to have health insurance.

Few conservatives would publicly promote going back to working conditions that existed before organized labor. Standards we take for granted today — such as prohibitions against child labor, the five-day work week and the minimum wage — were implemented only after being pushed for decades by people who had come together in unions. The eight-hour workday has been a goal of the American Federation of Labor since it was founded in 1886, and it became reality in an increasing number of U.S. workplaces thanks to persistent union advocacy. Medicare, established in 1965, had been pushed by labor leaders since Harry Truman’s administration 20 years earlier. The very contours of our working lives, from paid lunch breaks to retirement plans, were victories won by labor unions.

As one popular bumper sticker reminds us, the members of the labor movement are “the folks who brought you the weekend.”

Since such gains are overwhelmingly popular, conservatives will not challenge them head on. Instead, they use disingenuous language about individual choice as a way to undermine collective organization by employees.

Shared interests

The “right to work” laws being promoted today are based on several erroneous arguments.

First, the idea that employees in union workplaces are forced to pay dues for activities that they may disagree with politically misinterprets current law. As the Center for American Progress explains, “Federal law already guarantees that no one can be forced to be a member of a union or to pay any amount of dues or fees to a political or social cause they don’t support. What ‘right to work’ laws do is allow some workers to receive a free ride, getting the advantages of a union contract — such as higher wages and benefits and protection against arbitrary discipline — without paying any fee associated with negotiating on these matters.”

Second, regardless of whether an employee is a union member and pays full dues, all workers in a shop where there is a union receive the benefits of a collectively won contract. In addition to higher wages, union members were 53.9 percent more likely to have a pension and 28.2 percent more likely to have health insurance than nonunion workers. Historically in unionized sectors, labor has set standards such as due process rights in firing; these have then become the norm for nonunion workers in the same industries.

After the Idaho legislature passed “right to work” legislation in 1985 in an attempt to break unions, working people — whether they belonged to a union or not — suffered. The wages of nonunion workers in that state fell by 4.2 percent, according to work done by Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton. Similarly, after Oklahoma passed a “right to work” law in 2001, unemployment actually rose — and manufacturing companies left the state anyway.

The expansion of such laws should concern everyone — union member or not. The recent Supreme Court decision Harris v. Quinn extended the logic of the freeloader by creating another category of workers who need not pay anything to the collective institutions that represent them. The booming home health care industry is now poised for an employer offensive against home health workers who want to work together to improve their conditions of employment. What is worse, the majority decision in that case, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, revealed the court’s predisposition to expand a “right to work” mentality into every corner of the public sector, one of the last places where organized labor is still strong.

The Labor Day holiday provides an important occasion on which to recognize how Americans have benefited from the accomplishments of organized labor. Honoring this legacy means refuting those who are encouraging free-riding. And it means recognizing that we’re all better off when we see the connection between individual interests and collective action.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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