The Way to Maximize Worker Freedom: Combine Right to Work and Micro-Unions

Photo Credit: Getty

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a pro-union bill currently awaiting action in the Senate, includes a lot ideas to coerce individual workers into joining unions, but also one idea that might expand workers’ freedom in a novel way: micro-unions. As I explain in my recent CEI paper on the PRO Act, this variation on traditional unions, if done properly, could give workers who want to be represented through collective bargaining a way to do it that wouldn’t automatically involve dragging along co-workers who would rather not be in a union.

The catch is that for this to work, it would have to also involve right to work protections for employees to ensure that workers could also opt out of being in a union. Having both right to protections and micro-unions would ensure that unions are available to the workers who want them but remain completely voluntary organizations.

Alas, the PRO Act would eliminate right to work completely, stripping workers in 27 states of those protections. So, this middle-ground approach probably won’t happen any time soon. It is nevertheless something both sides should consider.

Union organizing bids often involve disputes over the “appropriate unit” of workers that the union would represent—that is, which workers should be covered by the contract and which should be excluded. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency, makes that determination in disputed cases, which is most of them. Traditionally, the NLRB’s standard has been for a bargaining unit to include all workers with a “community of interest” at a given workplace, with the board deciding disputes over the composition of the unit. 

The PRO Act would rewrite the National Labor Relations Act to allow collective bargaining in cases where only a portion of the workplace would be organized, provided that the “employees outside the unit do not share an overwhelming community of interest with employees inside.” The distinction might seem slight, but it could theoretically allow a union to organize, for example, certain sections of a department store and leave out other sections.

Business groups have usually opposed this, fearing it would allow unions to get a foothold in workplaces where they lack enough support to organize a majority of the workers. Instead, the unions could try to organize just the workers who support them and then try to build a broader presence from there. The phrase “camel’s nose under the tent” gets used a lot by critics of micro-unions.

The benefit of micro-unions is that they would be would be a step away from the NLRA’s traditional all-or-nothing representation approach. Because micro-unions would not cover an entire workplace, they would be limited to the sections where union support was strongest. This would respect workers’ freedom of association in a way similar to right to work. Granted, workers inside a micro-union would not have right to work protections if their state does have such a law, but there would likely be fewer workers seeking those protections by virtue of the fact that the union only covers the areas with the most pro-union workers.

Under right to work laws, the union is still obligated to represent non-members in collective bargaining, while micro-unions would—in theory, anyway—not have to represent non-members. Whether that is good or bad for the union or the workers depends on the situation. Under right to work, employees can become free riders on the union since they supposedly benefit from the union’s collective bargaining without having to pay dues. On the other hand, the union’s exclusive representation requires non-member workers to go through the union to seek redress of grievances. That gives a union significant leverage over non-members. If the micro-unions only represent their members, then non-members cannot act as free riders because they do not benefit from collective bargaining. Nor would they have to rely on the union to seek remedy for grievances.

Pairing right to work with micro-unions would therefore maximize worker freedom. Workers who want to join a union would find it easier to do so, while workers who do not could not be coerced into joining. The benefits of collective bargaining would go only to union members. That would allow workers to see for themselves whether union membership helped improve their compensation or working conditions. Workers in the micro-union could opt out if they felt it was not getting the job done.

The right to collectively bargain is part of the First Amendment’s right of association, after all. Ultimately, the most important thing is to maximize worker freedom while still respecting individual workers’ rights to dissent. Pairing micro-unions with right to work might be the best way to do that.