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The ‘freeloader’ myth in the right-to-work debate

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
United Auto Workers members walk in the Labor Day parade in Detroit in 2019. The UAW spends less than one-third of its revenue on “representational activities,” according to federal filings. Most other unions do the same; some spend more on political activity than on worker representation.

When Michigan Democrats narrowly won the state House and state Senate in November’s election, one of the first things organized labor pushed for them to do was repeal the state’s right-to-work law. And a key reason cited against this law is to force “freeloaders” to pay their fair share of bargaining. But this argument is mythical and counter to how unions actually act.

Michigan’s right-to-work law, passed a decade ago, makes it illegal to require workers to join or financially support a union just to keep their job. Since 2012, according to federal filings from unions, at least 140,000 people have withdrawn from organized labor in Michigan. It is one of 27 states that give workers a choice regarding union membership. 

A common claim from unions and others opposed to right-to-work laws is that workers who opt out of a union get the benefits of the contract while refusing to pay for it — that is, they are “freeloaders” or “free riders.” This complaint is commonly heard from unions and elected officials. Michigan’s largest teachers’ union, for example, has called those resigning their membership “freeloaders” dozens of times.

But this argument is disingenuous and false. Unions specifically fight, in court and legislatures, to represent all workers, whether they pay dues or not. And unions spend only a small percentage of the money they receive on bargaining for and directly representing workers anyway.

None of the largest unions in the United States spend most of their money directly representing workers, according to their latest federal filings, The AFL-CIO reports spending $16.3 million on “representational activities” — sounds like a lot, but it is only 11 percent of their total revenue. The National Education Association (NEA) reports spending about $38 million on direct representation for their nearly 2.9 million members, but that’s only 6.2 percent of their total revenue. The NEA spends more on political activity than it does on worker representation.

Other unions spend similar paltry amounts, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME (15.5 percent), Teamsters (22.2 percent) and United Food Service Workers (12.1 percent). Only the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU (41.4 percent) and American Federation of Teachers (32.2 percent) spend nearly one-third or more of their revenue on “representational activities.”  

This holds true in Michigan. The Michigan branches of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and AFSCME spent the most representing workers at nearly 40 percent of revenue. But the United Auto Workers spent less than one-third. The Michigan Education Association spends 25 percent. The United Food Workers spent about 15 percent. In total, organized labor in Michigan brings in more than $200 million — money that is mostly spent on things other than direct representational activities.

It is not Michigan’s right-to-work law that is responsible for requiring unions to represent nonmembers. Different state laws grant unions the privilege of being the “exclusive bargaining representative” for all employees in a workplace, member and nonmember alike. Attempts to change the law to let unions avoid representing nonmembers were made in 2016 and 2017 but failed to pass.

The kicker is that unions oppose changing the law. The Michigan Education Association was asked directly whether they wanted “to be relieved of representing those who’ve opted out of the union” and responded with a simple “No.”

Indeed, nearly every major union in the country opposes changing the law in this way. The NEA, AFT, AFSCME and SEIU all signed on to a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledging that “exclusive representation” gives them “a privileged place in negotiations over wages, benefits and working conditions” and that representing those who’ve opted out of union membership “is a “necessary concomitant” to that.

If unions genuinely believed they were harmed by having to represent nonmembers, they could easily alleviate the damage by giving up their exclusive bargaining privileges. They don’t and won’t, and so all their bellyaching should be taken with a grain of salt.

Employees who opt out of union membership are not “free riders.” In fact, it would be more accurate to label them “forced riders.” That’s because these employees, under current state and federal law, have no choice but to accept their union’s representation. In other words, they’re not getting anything for free; they’re forced to accept something they don’t want.

Michigan’s new Democratically controlled legislature ultimately may try to repeal the state’s right-to-work law. That would force hundreds of thousands of Michigan workers to pay unions against their will. This would provide a big boost to union bank accounts, who overwhelmingly support Democrats in elections. But it won’t fix any “free rider problem,” because there wasn’t one to begin with.

Jarrett Skorup is senior director of marketing and communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @JarrettSkorup.

Tags Democrats Labor unions Right-to-work laws teachers unions Trade unions union representation

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