Right to Work – Freedom of Association Should Work Both Ways

The legislature overrode Gov. Nixon 10 more times this week, making him Missouri’s most overridden governor – ever.   These bills ran the political spectrum, but one that failed garnered the most attention. The effort to override Gov. Nixon’s veto of right to work legislation fell 13 votes short.

The Right to Work issue is simple to state: should Missourians have a statutory right to freedom of association regarding their employment? In right to work states, unions and employers are forbidden from forcing someone to join a union as condition of employment. 

Right to work has been an issue for decades. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to enact laws protecting their citizens’ freedom to choose whether or not to join a union. Since Taft-Hartley, twenty-five states have passed right to work laws. Seventeen states passed RTW before 1960. Three more passed it between 1963 and 1985. Then Oklahoma passed it in 2001. Indiana and Michigan passed it in 2012. And Wisconsin passed it in 2015. Missouri is nearly surrounded. Of our neighbors, all but Illinois is RTW. (Kentucky has RTW county-by-county.)

Right to Work encompasses two consistent conflicts in the capitol that range across a wide variety of issues.

First, RTW involves a clash between collectivism and individual liberty. As your state representative, my governing philosophy is always to first look at an issue from the individual’s perspective. I believe in a government of limited powers that exists principally to protect individual rights – not empower those who would force someone else to do something against their will. Rights are inherently individual. Forced collectivism destroys individual rights because it makes the individual subordinate to the group.

These individual rights are most clearly expressed in the Bill of Rights, where the First Amendment guarantees the rights to freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, to petition government, and, implicitly, freedom of association. The Bill of Rights protects us against overreaching government. Federal and state statutes make these rights stronger by applying the same principles to protect individuals against others. 

As your representative, I have consistently voted to increase or protect your individual rights against government, unions, and big business. For example, corporate welfare tax breaks erode every citizen’s right to equal treatment under the law. We shouldn’t have two tax codes – one for those wealthy and savvy enough to grease the gears of government and a separate one for small business owners and working families. I’ve consistently fought these giveaways in favor of legislation reducing the tax burden for all Missourians – including this week during veto session. 

Second, RTW is another example of an unbending rule of politics: those who enjoy legal monopoly power over others will do everything they can to keep it. When government creates any law or regime that allows an organization (public or private) to compel others to pay money or do things against their will, the monopoly organization will never give it up without a huge fight.

I can understand why union executives fear right to work. Under existing law, they can force workers in their bargaining units to pay dues they don’t want to pay. In right-to-work states, the bosses have to prove their value to all members, not just the 50 percent plus one involved in a union election.

If they only listen to their union leaders, I can understand why many union members fear RTW as well. Their bosses tell them it’s a right to work for less and claim that it will lower wages. Facts, however, are stubborn things. Yes, average wages in RTW states are lower. But the RTW states started with average wages far behind non-RTW states. More importantly, it’s undeniably true that RTW states have grown at significantly higher rates over the past 50 years than non-RTW states. That’s true not just of the overall economy of RTW states, but also of median household incomes.

The most recent evidence that right-to-work improves the economy and does not lower wages comes from Michigan and Indiana – two union strongholds that recently passed RTW. In 2012, in the run-up to their changing the law, RTW opponents followed their traditional argument, claiming it was a “right to work for less.” After decades of losing jobs, Michigan led the nation in manufacturing job growth last year – increasing total manufacturing jobs by 4 percent in a single year, more than triple the national average. Indiana enjoyed similar success – increasing manufacturing jobs by 3.1 percent, making it third in the nation. (Second place? Wyoming, yet another RTW state.) Meanwhile, there is no evidence that wages decreased in Michigan or Indiana after RTW passed.  

Defending individual liberty is an American virtue. If freedom of association means anything, it must mean that workers have the ability to organize without interference from their employer or any other third-party. The right to organize is a hallmark of free society. But it must also mean that employees who don’t want to join should not be forced. Freedom of association is, necessarily, a two-way street. The RTW proposal we voted on this week is balanced. It also prohibits employers from conditioning employment on an employee refraining from becoming a member of a labor organization. It enforces the prohibition under state law by making it a misdemeanor and creating a cause-of-action to enforce it.

Right to work is not going away. Its short-term fate in Missouri likely hinges on next year’s gubernatorial election.