Americans regularly join and form clubs, civic associations, and church groups, to say nothing of the countless other organizations that rely on little more than the enthusiasm and support of their members. In fact Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous chronicler of early 19th century American life, observed that such associations are ingrained in our national character.
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations,” he wrote. “They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”
Much has changed since de Tocqueville’s time, but our shared enthusiasm for voluntary association has not. In fact, as technology has developed we’ve discovered new outlets for our passions and interests, with the Internet making it easier than ever to meet and share ideas, projects, and inspiration with like-minded people.
What do our tremendous varieties of civic organizations have in common? At first glance, not much. A weekly Bible Study group, the Rotary Club, and a Facebook fan page for a favorite band may have one or two members in common, but their priorities, resources, and goals are quite different. They all depend, however, on the spirit of voluntarism. Without members’ willing support, these organizations would quickly wither away.
But one type of private organization doesn’t play by the same rules. Employees across the country can be forced to pay union dues and accept union bargaining over their wages and working conditions just to get or keep a job. Union officials’ coercive power over employees, many of whom want nothing to with a union, flies in the face of America’s tradition of voluntarism and free association.
The problem is particularly acute in states without Right to Work laws, where union officials are empowered to collect dues from all employees in a unionized workplace, even those who oppose the union’s presence or do not belong to it. Everyday millions of Americans pay union dues not because they choose to, but because they would lose their job if they refused
Imagine being forced to “donate” your spare time to a local club or paying mandatory dues to your neighborhood’s civic association. Most people would bridle at the thought of having to contribute to organizations they may not be interested in supporting. Yet that is exactly how unions operate in many American workplaces.
Right to Work protections bring the spirit of voluntarism back to the American workplace. In Right to Work states, employees are still free to form, join, and pay dues to a union. However, no worker can be forced to join or pay dues against his or her will. Right to Work simply requires that unions stop acting like a dues collection racket and start playing by the same rules as every other private organization.
Union officials regularly abuse their power to force every employee in a unionized workplace to submit to their “representation” and work under their contract. Then, having stripped away employees’ right to speak for themselves, unions falsely claim that they should be entitled to dues or fees in exchange for representation that those employees do not want, did not ask for, and would be better off without. If union officials truly found it a burden to represent those non-paying workers, they could give up their monopoly power at any time.
Despite union officials’ nonstop opposition to Right to Work laws, the truth is a union that rejected coercion and sought only voluntary relationships with workers would revitalize the unions’ relationship with their members. A club that alienates its core supporters must adapt quickly or disappear.
Similarly, if workers can leave a union and stop paying dues, union officials must pay close attention to their feedback and grievances, a process that encourages greater accountability. Put simply: union officials would have to work for the members, instead of members working for the benefit of union officials.
For too long, union officials have enjoyed privileges beyond that of any other private organization in the country. And while union membership has steadily declined over the past few decades, the groups and voluntary associations that make up our civil society continue to thrive.
To date, 26 states have adopted Right to Work laws, most recently earlier this year in West Virginia. But ultimately it is federal law that authorizes union officials to impose forced union dues on workers who want nothing to do with the union.
The National Right to Work Act (S. 391/H.R. 612) would end forced dues once and for all to protect employee choice and revive the spirit of voluntarism in the workplace. That’s something that Americans of all stripes should celebrate.
Mark Mix is the president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the leading national organization dedicated to defeating forced unionism in the courts.