Freedom Foundation

Unions and Democrats Attack the Right to Work

Originally Published in The Wall Street Journal

Big Labor advanced halfway to achieving its top political priority Tuesday when the House narrowly passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. Despite the title, the PRO Act is stunningly, brazenly opposed to giving workers choices. It would strip from millions of workers the ability to make their own decisions about union participation.

The legislation, which President Biden has promised to sign if the Senate passes it, would be the most significant overhaul of private-sector collective-bargaining laws since the 1940s. It would tilt the playing field sharply in favor of unions and against workers and employers.

Perhaps most significant, the PRO Act would override and effectively repeal right-to-work laws, on the books in most states, which allow employees to decline union membership and not pay union fees. While the Supreme Court held in 2018 that the First Amendment guarantees this right to public employees, private workers lack that protection.

The term “right to work” gained prominence with a 1903 McClure’s magazine article by Ray Stannard Baker. He interviewed miners who crossed picket lines during the Pennsylvania coal strike of 1902. Scottish-American engineer Charles Monie told him, “I have a right to work when I like, for what I like, and for whom I like.” Another man, reportedly blinded in a subsequent attack by union sympathizers, told Baker, “I believe that a man should have a right, no matter what his reasons are, to work when and where he pleases without dictation from anyone.”

Such sentiments continue to resonate with Americans. According to Gallup, while most people view unions positively, between 70% and 80% support right-to-work laws.

Even unions, which vociferously oppose right-to-work laws, can benefit from them. A United Auto Workers official once explained how right-to-work helps union organizers by allowing them to tell hesitant employees they “don’t have to pay” if they think the union isn’t “earning its keep.” Similarly, organizers in the union campaign at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse have pointed to the state’s right-to-work law to counter Amazon’s messaging about the cost of union dues.

Under the PRO Act, unions could seek the termination of any employee who refused to pay union fees. First affected would be the roughly 938,000 private employees who are represented by unions but chose not to be members.

But millions more American workers could soon face similar prospects. Designed to facilitate top-down union organizing, other provisions in the PRO Act would undermine employees’ ability to vote on unionization in secret-ballot elections in some cases, curtail employers’ ability to counter union messaging, shorten the union election process to deprive workers of the time to make an informed decision, and require employers to provide unions with employees’ personal contact information.

Not even independent contractors would be safe. The PRO Act would reclassify many of them as employees, opening the door for unions to begin organizing them, too.

Like businesses, unions exist to make money in exchange for a service—theirs is workplace representation. But a lack of accountability and competition breeds indifference to members, high dues, poor service and corruption, as shown most recently by the conviction of 11 top officials of the United Auto Workers, including two former presidents, on federal charges.

Given that unions can agree to limit competition, secure legal monopolies to represent groups of workers indefinitely, and, in 23 states without right-to-work laws, compel workers to pay for their services, what else would we expect?

Far from empowering workers, ending right-to-work would strip employees in the other 27 states of their primary means of holding unions accountable for performance. At the same time, it would force them to subsidize the highly partisan political goals of union executives.

It is unfortunate that organized labor’s solution to historically low membership isn’t to offer better services at a lower price, but to lobby Congress to allow them to force themselves on workers.

As the PRO Act moves to the Senate, lawmakers should remember the observation of Charles Monie, the coal worker: “Unionism is all right when it is kept within bounds.”

Mr. Nelsen is director of labor policy for the Freedom Foundation and a former member of the Federal Service Impasses Panel within the Federal Labor Relations Authority.