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Voluntary Representation: The Next Step After Right-to-Work

January 22, 2013 J

By Casey Given

Defenders of free association support right-to-work laws to protect an employees’ right to not pay dues to a union they disagree with. However, even in right-to-work states, employees who opt out of union membership are usually still exclusively represented by their workplace’s union whether they like it or not. As I explained in a blog post last month, unions can technically agree to members-only bargaining with their employers, allowing non-members to join another union or represent themselves. However, they almost never do because of the strategic advantage exclusive representation of non-members gives them at the bargaining table. After all, representing every worker is much more powerful than just representing some.

Thus, although right-to-work is a step in the right direction toward complete respect of workers’ right to choose their representatives free from coercion, it is imperfect in that unions can still shove their bargaining agreements down the throats of unwilling workers without any available alternative. So, what’s the next step towards respect worker choice? The answer is simple: ending unions’ workforce monopoly, or exclusive representation.

By ending exclusive representation and allowing collective bargaining to be voluntary, states can show greater respect for workers’ freedom of association and save themselves from fiscal ruin. Under such voluntary representation, a worker who wants to be represented by his or her workplace’s established union can do so; a worker who wants to be represented by a different union can do so; and, a worker who wants to opt out of unionization completely can do so. Such freedom would end one-size-fits-all contracts and allow public servants to bargain with their boss however they see fit.

Fiscally speaking, voluntary representation would eliminate unions’ undue advantage at the bargaining table that has skyrocketed states’ unfunded pension liabilities. As James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation explains in a recent issue brief on voluntary representation:

Unions’ bargaining monopoly enables them to operate as labor cartels—forcing the government to employ workers on union terms. Unions use this control over the government’s workforce to redirect tax dollars towards employee compensation—and away from other services.

Government unions have particularly driven up public-sector pension costs. In many states, government employees can retire in their mid-50s and enjoy a full pension for the rest of their lives. States now face between $1.4 trillion and $4.6 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities.

These unfunded liabilities are a serious threat, having already bankrupted 31 cities across the country and threatening to do so soon to Illinois. Voluntary representation in the public sector is imperative for the fiscal health of our states.

Customer choice has fueled America’s prosperity by allowing individuals in the private sector to associate, either as a customer or worker, with companies that provide quality goods and services. So too should representative choice in the labor market fuel fortune and fiscal stability while respecting workers’ rights.

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