I DON'T BELONG to the American Bar Association because, years ago, the national umbrella group for my profession announced that it supported abortion rights. Not that anyone was really asking. Not that it was particularly relevant to the business of lawyering. Not that a statistical consensus had been reached as in, "Hi, my name is Trixie and I know I'm interrupting your dinner but, um, can I ask you a few questions about abortion?" The ABA simply came out and announced that it strongly supported Roe v. Wade. As soon as I found that out, I sent the money I would have paid in membership dues to several pro-life organizations. It made no difference that, after great criticism and a loss of thousands of dues-paying members, the organization rescinded its pro-Roe position.
The ABA is not a union, and no one is required to join. But I thought of this incident the other day when I heard that Michigan was poised to pass a right-to-work law. For those who haven't been watching the "Les Miz" impersonators storming the barricades at the Michigan state house (that would be teachers and other union members), right-to-work laws protect employees who don't want to join unions. It might come as a surprise to some people that unions often have a monopoly on a particular workplace. They can actually force employees to join their little club and pay dues. In my mom's old Italian neighborhood, guys who did that were called loan sharks. Others might call it extortion. To some union leaders, however, it's just business as usual.
This is not an indictment of collective bargaining, per se. Unions have a noble history of ensuring prosperity for generations of American workers. Workplace protections that didn't exist at the time of such industrial tragedies as the Triangle fire in New York came about as a direct result of union initiatives. Coal miners in Pennsylvania, meat packers in Wisconsin and railroad workers in California all benefited from collective bargaining.
But that was then, and then was a very long time ago. Lately, unions have been in the business of shutting down companies with their outsized demands and their unwillingness to compromise. As the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this week, one of the main reasons bakers at Hostess lost their jobs (and the business ultimately folded) was that the Teamsters clung to archaic requirements that cake and bread products be delivered in separate trucks. And we're all familiar with suburban teachers, usually much better- paid than their urban counterparts, going on strike while proclaiming for the cameras that they "care" about the kids.
Again, this isn't a broadside against unions in general. This is about the attack unions launch against those who refuse to join, who have weighed the pros and cons and decided that it's in their best interest to save the hundreds of dollars in union dues and invest them in something else. Like a mortgage. Or a child's college fund. Or a car payment. You know, personal choices. Isn't that what we're all supposed to be about?
When you also consider that a sizable portion of those dues are used to support causes and people that an employee might not like (a presidential candidate, for example) you see the equity in allowing workers to opt out. Just as I refuse to give my money to the pro-choice ABA, a truck driver in Michigan has the right not to have his pockets frisked for causes he opposes.
Union supporters do have a legitimate counterargument. They say it's only through their direct (strikes, negotiations) and indirect (lobbying) efforts that conditions have improved in their industries. Thus, they argue, it's not fair for nonunion workers to enjoy these benefits if they don't pay the piper, er, dues.
But there's a relatively simple solution: Those workers who choose to forego union membership can also be forced to waive those increased benefits and salaries by agreement with the employer. I'm not a labor lawyer and I'm sure there would be some legal complications, but it seems to me that creating that type of system is far more equitable than forcing an employee to belong to a group he would otherwise forego if given the choice, "choice" again being the operative word.
While there is obviously strength in numbers, those numbers have to be voluntary. Otherwise, we are just a more evolved version of the former Soviet system in which workers were "collectivized" for their own good. I much prefer the idea that we are all in control of our own destinies, as eloquently expressed in my favorite poem, "Invictus." As William Ernest Henley wrote in the last stanza:
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.