By Michael Kinsley

The enactment of a right-to-work law by Michigan this week is indeed, as the media have described it, a blow against the union movement. Michigan, of all places. But it is also a blow against fairness and common sense.

"Right to work" sounds like a law guaranteeing you a job, or at least protecting your job once you have it. A lot of the propaganda by business groups is about so-called forced unionism. In fact, it's almost the opposite. The main effect of right-to-work laws is to outlaw regulations of employment and allow your boss to fire you without cause.

The Wagner Act of 1935, which officially gave workers the right to join a union, and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which filled in some details, were supposed to create a system that was generally welcoming to unionism but didn't dictate terms. The notion was that the government would create and supervise procedures for labor negotiations, but the details of employment contracts would be negotiated by the parties.

Before Taft-Hartley, employers and unions were allowed to negotiate a "closed shop," in which you had to be a member of the union to get a job. If the union threw you out, you were out of a job. This turned some unions into guilds, which excluded minorities or employed only relatives of members. Taft-Hartley outlawed the closed shop as well as the "union shop," where you had to join a union after you were hired.

Without a rule like this, unions face a "free rider" problem: People could enjoy the benefits of membership, including negotiation of wages, without sharing the cost. Not only was this unfair to those who did pay their share, but it made organizing significantly harder. Why should I pay dues if my fellow workers don't?

Taft-Hartley did allow the "agency shop": a workplace where you didn't have to join the union, but you had to pay union dues. This was supposed to prevent the free-rider problem while avoiding a First Amendment freedom-of-association problem.

However, the notorious Section 14(b) of Taft-Hartley allows individual states to ban even the agency shop with "right to work" laws. The 24 states that do, now including Michigan, are right-to-work states.

So why should you have to join a union to keep your job? Answer: You don't have to. But in non-right-to-work states, if your contract provides so, you do have to pay dues. Otherwise, there is a free-rider problem.

For principled conservatives, there is another question: Why should there be laws that limit the freedom of individual employers to negotiate any deal they want with employees? At least that ought to be a question for conservatives, though I've never seen any of them struggling with it.

On another level, right-to-work laws have become another weapon in the pointless, costly, and ultimately zero-sum competition among states to attract new businesses. No factory moves to a new state without blackmailing it for benefits that typically include right-to-work status, along with various financing arrangements misusing the states' power to issue federal-tax-free bonds.

For the federal government to be subsidizing all sides of this ultimately futile competition is insane. But studies show, naturally, that states with right-to-work laws attract more new business than states without them. No doubt. But that's not the same as proving that the favors and privileges that states offer to businesses make economic sense.

Michigan is where I grew up, and in its current circumstances, you can't really blame it for trying almost anything. It's just a shame that its politicians picked this. Not only does it spit on the state's union heritage, but it probably won't even work.

Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. He can be reached at mkinsley@bloomberg.net

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