Some U.S. states say people should have the right not to join a union
By: Ken Gallinger Ethically speaking columnist, Published on Fri Jun 13 2014
Many American states permit employees in unionized worksites to opt out of dues. It’s not legal in Canada. But after Michigan passed such a law, some conservative politicians began promoting the idea here. The argument made by proponents is “the right of employees to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union.” Is it ethical to refuse to pay dues if you work in a job covered by a union contract?
There are two viable ways of paying for services we enjoy. On the one hand, there are a limited number of services (roads, police, hospitals etc.) that we all pay for, whether we use them or not. These are provided by government, and deemed to some degree essential.
The vast majority of services on which we depend, however, are to some extent user-pay — i.e., if you use the service, you pay some of the cost. Included on the long list of services we fund on a per-use (or per-season, etc.) basis are things like provincial parks, museums, public transit, theatre tickets, etc. Almost all of these enjoy some public subsidization, because we are still, essentially, a socialist country. But users pay some per-pop cost, and in recent years the percentage has generally shifted away from subsidies, and towards higher user fees. Even in education, parents report a never-ending chorus of gimme from schools their kids attend.
Proponents of so-called “Right to Work” legislation (a euphemism gone malignant if there ever was one) argue, on the one hand, that union membership/dues should be a discretionary, user-pay arrangement; those who choose to support unions would be free to do so, but others equally free to opt out. Where their logic goes weirdly off track, however, is on the question of whether those who opt out of dues would also relinquish the benefits won by unions, not only on that particular worksite, but across society. Well, no, they wouldn’t in fact; they would continue to receive all the benefits of union negotiations, advocacy and so on — either without paying a cent, or in return for a paltry fee-for-service. That’s why Rick Unger, writing in Forbes, said this would be better described as “Right to Freeload” legislation.
The question is not whether everyone in society should be legally required to pay union dues; I’ve never paid dues in my life — but I’ve also never enjoyed the protections that workers in unionized environments take for granted. If I had a dispute with my employer, I was completely, 100 per cent on my own.
The real question is: could it ever be OK to accept work in a context where employees enjoy salary levels, pension plans, working conditions and other benefits that have been won, over many years, by unions, and still not support the unions that won those benefits?
The obvious answer is “no.”
Unless we create a society where worker’s rights, pensions and other benefits are universally protected by government — and we’re all prepared to pay for that protection the same way we pay for cops and hospitals — unions remain the only effective vehicle by which those benefits are won and protected. And ethically speaking, if you dance the jig, you pay the piper.