Labor unions commanded greater public affection back when they relied more on the power of persuasion than on the persuasion of power. In a 1957 Gallup Poll, 75 percent of Americans said they approved of unions. Today union approval stands at just 52 percent, while a plurality of Americans says that unions should have less influence, not more. Michigan may be America's fifth-most unionized state, but even there most residents want little to do with organized labor. Union members account for just 17.5 percent of Michigan's workforce.
It isn't hard to understand the appeal of right-to-work laws: Employees would rather choose for themselves whether to join a union, just as they choose for themselves whether to participate in their company's 401(k) plan or dental coverage or United Way campaign. Unions claim that forcing unwilling members to kick back part of each paycheck to a labor organization is the only way to prevent "free riders" – otherwise employees could enjoy all the benefits of a union contract without paying dues to support the union. But coercing workers to pay for representation they don't want and can't refuse is not a benefit. It's extortion.
Besides, unions aren't obliged to represent everyone in a workplace: That exclusive bargaining power is something they demand – and then insist everyone must pay for. It's as if a taxi you didn't order showed up at your door every day, driven by a cabbie who demanded to be paid for his trouble – or else. And the "or else" isn't theoretical. In states without right-to-work protections, unions have gotten employees fired for failing to fork over union fees.
The advantage of right-to-work laws is hard to miss. As analyst F. Vincent Vernuccio of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a market-oriented Michigan think tank, notes, workers "vote with their feet." Since 1970, the population of right-to-work states has doubled, while in states that allow compulsory unionism, the population has only grown by one-third. "The exodus route is clear," Vernuccio writes.
Between 2000 and 2010, there has been a net domestic migration of nearly 5 million people from states that lack right-to-work protection to states that confer them. Is it sheer coincidence that over the last decade, inflation-adjusted compensation in right-to-work states grew by almost 12 percent compared to just 3 percent in non-right-to-work states? Or that in CNBC's latest ranking of the "Top States for Business," all but two of the top 15 are right-to-work states?
To witness the growth a right-to-work environment makes possible, Michigan legislators need gaze no farther than neighboring Indiana, which banned compulsory unionism early in 2012. Since January, the Hoosier State has added 43,300 jobs. Michigan has lost 4,200.
But the economic gains are secondary. The essential issue is liberty. Every American worker should have the right to join a labor union. And also the right not to.