Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Workers' Rights

The "right-to-work" debate going on in Michigan struck a nerve with me. If you haven't been following the story, Republican Governor Rick Snyder plans to sign legislation that would prevent workers from having to join a union or pay dues to a union even if they do not join. In other words, he is in favor of giving workers choice. The unions, however, oppose choice.

I have never been a union member, but I was twice asked to join. The first time was when I was in college (a long, long time ago). I financed my senior year in part by driving a school bus on a part-time basis. I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, rode my bike to the school bus parking lot, and clocked in by 6:30. I drove kids from kindergarten to high school until 9 am. I then rode home, ate something, got in the car, and drove to Villanova University where I had arranged my classes so I could return to work by 3 pm for the afternoon shift. I drove the school bus a total of five hours a day and I earned just over $4 per hour (almost twice the minimum wage at the time).

I was eventually approached by a union representative. I was told (not asked) that I had to join the union. I was told that the union would negotiate for better wages and benefits on my behalf, and in return, I had to pay dues, which would eat up a good portion of my part-time wages. I quickly realized that my arm was being figuratively, yet vigorously, twisted. I managed to avoid joining the union by explaining that I was going to quit the job in a few months as soon as I finished college.

The second "invitation" to join a union came seven years later when I became a university professor. Once again, I was approached by a union representative, but this time the pressure was much more subtle. I again refused to join. I reasoned that if ever I was unhappy with my compensation, I could ask for a raise. If that didn't work, I could seek employment elsewhere. And if I could not find a better paying job, well then I must have overestimated my worth.

It's not that I am so opposed to unions. I actually think they played a critical role in the development of workers' rights, and even today, they sometimes provide a useful service. I am opposed, however, to the concept of forced membership. If someone wants to join a union then by all means let them; but if they don't want to join, leave them alone. No one should be denied employment or harassed on the job because they refused to join a union. This is what the debate in Michigan is all about. Unions want to be able to force membership, or at the very least, to force even non-members to pay union dues. This is akin to extortion and it simply does not pass the smell test.