There is little we can do on a national level to correct the wrongs of Wisconsin. Likewise, there may be little that we can do to help public employee union members in states that have passed right-to-work laws. However, it may be time for unions to seriously reconsider their tactics.
In an age of gerrymandering, even the strongest electoral efforts cannot guarantee a reversal for the very simple reason that you may not move enough votes in all of the legislative bodies to get the result you want. President Obama won Michigan and Wisconsin and yet Democratic majorities did not materialize. In Wisconsin, the numbers actually fell.
Now Michigan has one advantage Wisconsin did not have, which is vote referendum, although that failed this past November when they attempted to enshrine labor rights in the state Constitution. Michigan Republicans, learning from Ohio, also excluded police and fire from their bill, although GOP may yet face voter wrath. Gov. Rick Snyder’s not terribly popular and a strong challenger might take him down and carry a repealing referendum with it.
This leads me to ask, what can be done? Repealing Taft-Hartley, the source of Right to work statutes, is political impossible. Frankly, if Democrats never did during the heyday of LBJ, it seems like a cold day in hell that they would do it now. There may be another way (and I welcome your thoughts below). The fundamental problem with Right to Work is that it weakens unions financially with some bizarro notion that you should not pay unions for what they do, bargain on your behalf. Yet, the unions are still obligated to treat that non-paying worker fairly under the union’s duty of fair-representation.
Why not simply change the National Labor Relations Act to say unions do not need to bargain equally for those that decline to pay dues. You could probably not set up a situation where the benefits bargained for would be different. However, the union could decline your grievance unless you pay a fee. Your boss mistreats you, you don’t pay your dues, you don’t get free protection from the union. Pay a fee and the union comes back to life for you full of its obligations. All other rules prohibiting the employers from treating employees differently continue. I am sure there is a way to hammer this out to keep the union dues-paying workers from being treated differently than non-union-dues payer workers.
Another tactic is in-sourcing benefits to the union. The union does not have to give non-dues-paying workers access to programs it reserves for its members only.
Could this work? Maybe. I would argue it would be hard for the right to argue unions have to give away “free stuff” to freeloaders. The big question is can you design this in a way that it does not disadvantage unions significantly. Oh, and this would functionally only apply in states that are right-to-work.
While the Michigan developments are simply underhanded of Snyder and the GOP, I happen to believe their impact will be less than it was in Wisconsin because the temperament of the workforce has more to do with unions success/failure than RTW laws. The proof? Super-union state Nevada is right-to-work. Alaska, too, has a huge union-participation rate, although the influence of the unions there is less clear. That proves that passing these laws is just ideological theater. However, it also proof that these efforts are fueled less by a policy belief than an antipathy toward unions…or really anybody doing an honest day’s work.