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Op-Ed: To win the South, unions should embrace right to work

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The United Auto Workers’ recent success organizing a Chattanooga, Tenn., Volkswagen factory and an upcoming vote at a Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama raise the possibility the labor movement will finally get a foothold in Southern states.

Look for the unions to make their next step to attack the region’s right to work laws that prevent workers from being obligated to join or otherwise financially support a union they oppose.

All Southern states have right to work laws. Technically, the laws are limitations on management, prohibiting them from signing union collective bargaining contracts that obligate workers to back the union. These types of contracts called “security clauses” are a common feature of bargaining contracts in the 24 states that lack right to work laws: Workers literally have to support a union or lose their job.

Right to work laws can therefore continue to be a major boon for Southern workers even if the union organizing push catches on. Unlike their union brethren in other states, southern workers would have a powerful means — the power to not join — to hold their unions to account. There are many reasons a worker might want to hold their union to account.

Four years ago, for example, 15 former UAW officials, including two past presidents, were convicted on charges of fraud and embezzlement that involved $15 million in funds meant for worker centers.

Liberals will argue that right to work laws weaken unions by allowing workers to “free ride” on the union – never mind that supporting a union should, first and foremost, be the individual worker’s own choice. Certainly, the laws do not make it impossible for unions to exist.

Absolutely nothing prevents workers from supporting unions if that is their wish. The victory at the Chattanooga plant is proof of this. And there are other examples. Nevada has a right to work law but also has 12.4% of its workforce unionized, more than a point above the national average.

That proves that the two things can co-exist. The laws merely stymie the coercive go-along-get-along membership structure that became the mainstay for unions throughout the 20th century.

Workers might even be more inclined to back a union if they knew that the union leadership had to be mindful of the members’ concerns. And if a union has so few paying members that it collapses, then maybe it should fail. That lack of support indicates its members didn’t see much value in it.

It remains to be seen if unions like UAW can learn to live with right to work laws in the first place or if they try to fight them. Union leaders by and large hate the laws precisely because they give them less control over the members and potentially leave the unions in a weak financial state.

Raise the subject with a union leader and be prepared to wipe the venom from your lapels as they call the laws “right to work for less.” Unions successfully fought to roll back Michigan’s right to work law in 2023 and blocked Missouri’s in 2017.

Unions also often don’t bother to tell workers about their rights to opt out or other legal means they have to hold the union to account. The National Labor Relations Act makes unions the workers’ sole representative on labor issues, resulting in workers getting very one-sided information. Outside groups and conservative institutions have tried to counter this through public education campaigns.

Right to work laws are nevertheless an ingrained part of Southern states, as well as most midwestern ones. Southerners are also ornery folks who typically don’t react well to outsiders telling them “you’re doing it wrong.” Any push by organized labor to roll back the southern states’ right to work laws is likely to hit a brick wall.

UAW was able to win over workers in the Volkswagen vote, activists argue, by focusing strictly on conditions at the factory and avoiding outside matters. “Meadows said the worker-organizers had learned from past drives not to get too drawn into partisan politics,” reported the liberal journal Labor Notes.

Reversing course and pushing to scrap right to work runs counter to that and may alienate the workers at Volkswagen who did want a union and any others who might be thinking of signing up. Unions would be better off embracing the laws. After all, unions exist to serve their members, not vice versa.

Sean Higgins is a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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