Personal freedom wins in Michigan

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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This has been the year of personal freedom. In 2012, voters across the country consistently reaffirmed their desire to see individual choice trump institutional power. In November, Michigan voters rejected the enshrinement of collective bargaining in the state’s constitution. In Colorado and Washington, they demanded the right to decide for themselves about marijuana use. In other states, the people demanded the right to define marriage for themselves apart from religious doctrine or the authority of the state.

Given these events, it’s no surprise that even in an organized labor-stronghold like Michigan, the people, through their representatives, demanded that they be able to choose their own destiny in the workplace. They don’t want to be forced into unions that may no longer represent their best interests on the shop floor, at the negotiating table, or at the ballot box. Michigan’s right-to-work law is yet another victory in a year of triumphs for individual freedom.

It’s also a practical reform. Right-to-work states exceed forced-unionization states in income growth, job growth, and even population growth. And it’s wrong to assume that with a new law in place, Michigan is about to drop to third-world status. Dallas, Nashville, Phoenix, Charlotte, Las Vegas, and the Virginia suburbs around the nation’s capital are examples of right-to-work jurisdictions that are flourishing, not the reverse.

Interestingly, one fact that seems to have been missed by the union sympathizers is that unions including the UAW have tens of thousands of members in right-to-work states. The only difference is that in those jurisdictions, the local unions needs to show value, earn their members’ trust, and be free of apparent corruption (on average, two union staff gets indicted every week).

Liberal Democrats oppose right-to-work laws for political reasons. If they weren’t the beneficiaries of union political money, no Democrat would consent to letting the paychecks of working-class Americans be siphoned for political causes without that employee’s explicit consent. Imagine the Democrats’ outrage if a company told an employee she had to financially support a candidate.

There’s still a chance to come around, though. If the Democrats want to get on the right side of workers and individual rights, they should try to catch some of Michigan’s reforming spirit and demand that Congress pass the Employee Rights Act (ERA), a piece of legislation that will protect workers nationwide.

The ERA would make unions more responsive to their members’ needs by mandating that unions periodically re-certify. As it stands, less than 10 percent of current union members voted for the union in their workplace. Many workers are represented today by a labor union they inherited from a decision made generations earlier by a completely different workforce. The leaders negotiating worker salaries and benefits should not have their authority by an accident of history; periodic re-certification would make them accountable to their members.

The ERA also prohibits collusion by employers and unions to authorize recognition of a union to collect dues in exchange for an economically attractive “sweetheart contract.”

The ERA would give workers the right to a secret-ballot vote on strike decisions. Hostess proved the need for this basic protection earlier this year. Before the company’s collapse, the Bakers Union’s national leaders decided that their workers at Hostess were an acceptable loss and pushed them to strike. It improved the union’s tough reputation around the country, even though it cost every Hostess worker their job.

Instead of standing in the past alongside unaccountable and paternalistic unions, Democrats could stand on the side of the future, where free Americans have the power and the confidence to determine their own choices in their careers, to demand pay commensurate to their worth, and to control what political causes their dues are supporting. The lesson here is that Michigan is not an election year fluke; it’s running ahead of Democrats to a brighter and freer future — a future we should all welcome.

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts.