Just a charade: Unionization as a ‘civil right’

In order to convince Nissan workers in the Deep South to unionize, the leaders of the United Auto Workers (UAW) have become masters of civil-rights rhetoric. The UAW fondly compares the “worker rights” of today to the decades-long struggle of African Americans against Jim Crow laws. Top UAW official Gary Casteel observed, “We’ve been saying that worker rights is the civil rights battle of the 21st century.”

This effort by the UAW, however, is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy that obscures the real issues. The UAW claims unionization is a civil right, when in fact union bosses often trample those rights.

A civil right is a political charter whose exercise does not interfere with the ability of others to exercise the same right. My ability to vote does not prevent you from voting too. My right to publish an editorial saying that slugs are an abomination (especially in my sink) does not prevent you from arguing in a letter that slugs may actually constitute a net benefit to human society. The point is that, in a free nation, we can possess and express different opinions.

Unfortunately, this dynamic does not much exist in the unionized workplace today. Certified unions always act as the exclusive bargaining representative of all the workers in that unit. This “doctrine of exclusivity” means that one union, and that union alone, can represent the interests of the worker. By way of contrast, other developed nations like France allow several unions to compete for the affections of employees in a single workplace.

UAW loves to use bubbly slogans like “economic equality” and “civil rights,” but it cannot deny that a system of exclusive representation creates real winners and losers. The winners, of course, are the union bosses who cash in on the extra dues that new members provide. The losers are workers who see no benefit from joining a particular union.

Consider the words of Stephanie Sutton, a Nissan worker in Mississippi. In a July 31 Reuters article, Sutton observed: “I don’t see where they [the UAW] would help us in any kind of way. You have to have a problem to fix, and I don’t have any problem that I can’t fix with my managers.”

Sutton actually has a good relationship with her employers and does not want union representation. Yet the UAW amusingly insists that Sutton is an exploited worker.

But Sutton is lucky because she lives in a right-to-work state. In forced-unionism states, exclusivity mandates compel workers to take part in unions that they may not support. Such practices promote the most absurd kind of workplace monopoly, where one union gains the exclusive power to represent all workers in a bargaining unit.

Suppose a union worker named Bob wants to bargain with an employer by himself. Under current exclusivity mandates, he cannot do it. If he wants to start his own union to compete with the existing one by offering better benefits, he cannot do that. Heaven forbid that he should try to decertify the union.

Workers need to be protected from the abuses of businesses, but they must also be protected from abuses by unions. If workers do not support a business, they can leave. Yet if they don’t support a union in a forced-unionism state, they still must pay union dues if they want to keep their jobs.

What is the solution? Unions should stick to collectively bargaining for their members only, instead of presuming to know what is best for all workers. If workers can freely choose whether or not to become members in a union, organizations like the UAW can regain the legitimacy that they lost a long time ago. Then, such talk of “civil rights” will not sound like such an empty promise.

Michael Giles writes on national affairs for The Hillsdale Forum. Jessica Miller has written for The Providence Journal.