Yes, Let’s Debate Taking Rights Away from Workers

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Legislation doesn’t get much simpler than the National Right To Work Act. Introduced by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson and just two pages long, it says that say private sector unions and management cannot collude to take money away from workers. It is the type of thing where a person might wonder, “Wait, that’s not already illegal?”

The answer is: It depends on where you live. It is legal in 23 states as well as in Washington D.C. for businesses and private sector unions to sign a contract that says all workers must either join the union or pay it a regular fee or lose their job. But it may soon be legal in all of them, stripping workers in 27 states of the right to work without supporting a union.

The Senate is set to take up the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would, among other provisions, prohibit states from having so-called right to work laws. The PRO Act’s chances hinge on whether Democrats can remain unified and whether the filibuster remains.

Paul and Wilson’s National Right to Work Act is unlikely to ever be passed in the current, Democrat-controlled Senate. But it might force a debate on these issues. That could boost its chances later on down the road. Whenever the debate focuses on core underlying issue of whether joining a union should be the individual worker’s choice, right to work tends to win.

Union-management contracts typically include provisions called “security clauses” that obligate workers to support the union. Typically, employers deduct the membership dues directly from the worker’s paycheck and route them to the union’s account. However, 27 states prohibit these type of contract provisions.

“I, along with over 80 percent of the American people, believe that every worker should have the power to decide whether or not to negotiate for themselves with their employer,” Wilson said. “This bill is about giving freedom to hard-working Americans.”

“Kentucky and 26 other states have already passed right to work laws. It’s time for the federal government to follow their lead,” Paul said. The legislation would amend both the National Labor Relations Act, which covers most private sector workers, and the earlier Railway Labor Act, which covers the transportation industry, effectively making all states right to work.

This prohibition on right to work laws is not one of the better known provisions of the PRO Act, which is blandly described in most news reports as merely a bill to help workers organize. Very little in the PRO Act confers additional rights to individual workers. The legislation mostly takes rights away in the name of giving unions more leverage.

Union advocates are quick to say that workers want collective bargaining, but businesses and the law frustrate those efforts. But nothing in a right to work law prevents workers from joining a union if that is what they want. In fact, even in right to work states workers have to be proactive and affirmatively opt out of supporting the union. They typically have to renew that declaration annually. Unions are not held to the same standard. They don’t have to, for example, hold periodic elections to determine if workers still support them, even in cases where a worksite has had 100 percent turnover since the union was first recognized.

Why wouldn’t a worker want to be in a union? Maybe they feel the union in question is corrupt and doesn’t deserve their support. Maybe they feel the union doesn’t effectively represent them. Maybe they disagree with the union’s political stances and would prefer that it stuck to collective bargaining. Maybe they just don’t want to keep their hard-earned money. For most unionized members, withholding their dues is the only effective form of protest they have against their union’s management and policies.

If most workers truly wanted to be in unions, right to work laws would be irrelevant because the workers would just ignore them.