Dean Baker catches the New York Times giving credence to the widespread myth that American workers can be forced to join a union. Reality: they can't -- it's illegal even to coerce workers to join a union.
The NYT wrongly told readers that a bill approved by the New Hampshire legislature would, "disallow collective bargaining agreements that require employees to join a labor union." It is already the case that collective bargaining agreements cannot require employees to join a labor union.
Under current New Hampshire law, collective bargaining agreements can require workers to pay representation fees to a union. National labor law requires that a union represent all workers who are in a bargaining unit regardless of whether or not they opt to join the union.
This means that non-members not only get the same wages and benefits as union members, but the union is also required to represent non-members in any conflict with the employer covered by the contract.
I wrote about this in some detail last month. It works like this:
In states that haven't passed so-called Right-To-Work laws, the union can charge all workers in a “negotiating unit” for the direct cost of representing them, but cannot, by law, force them to pay for the union's political activities. “They can only be required to pay for their share of bargaining costs and representation costs – not politics, not legislative stuff, not anything else,” [labor attorney Laurence] Gold said. “Compulsory union dues are a canard, everywhere, and without exception. Anybody who says, oh you can compel somebody to support the union's electoral activities – well, that's simply false.”
That piece elicited an outraged email from a reader:
I do not belong to the union but I am forced to contribute to the union. I’m forced to pay my “fair share,” which is within pennies of what I would pay as a union member. As far as I’m concerned that is extortion – the union is taking what is not theirs to take. I did NOT agree to it, yet they take it anyway. Evidently that money is NOT mine as you so eloquently point out. Apparently, it’s theunion’s money whether I want to contribute or not.
Secondly you say that I can’t be forced to support the union’s political views. Again, if my money is going to theunion, which I did not freely give, and the union supports candidates I wouldn’t support with my dying breath, how can you say that I’m not being forced to support Democrats?
The union is stealing my money, giving it to the Democrats, which means I am technically supporting Democrats. Apparently the ONLY way I can stop that is by quitting my job, which is not feasible at this time.
To which I responded:
According to the CATO Institute -- a conservative, free market-oriented think tank -- workers in unionized government bargaining units earn 10% more, on average, than those in non-unionized units. That is, you are pocketing (on average) 10% more in wages than if you worked in a non-unionized unit.
You may not appreciate that, but your fellow workers are looking after their own self-interests, as is the norm in a capitalist system. It's a democratic workplace, and a majority of your colleagues voted for unionrepresentation. If the majority felt as you do, then it would be easy enough to decertify the union.
Given that the majority want representation, and the union cannot, by law, negotiate different benefits for its members than it does for you, it's only fair that you chip in for the direct costs of that representation -- legal fees and the like.
Now, to your main point: again, it's illegal to use your fair share dollars to pay for anything but the direct costs of representation. If you have any reason to believe your union is doing so, there are many, many prosecutors who would love to take the case. It's also true that unions, since the Bush administration, have had to file a ton of paperwork documenting every dollar they spend. They are much more highly regulated than private companies, and as a result, there is far less room for cooking the books.
So, that's basically the way the law works. I'll just add that you represent a small group of American workers -- 11.9% of he workforce belongs to a union, and 13.1% are represented by unions. So, you're a member of the difference -- the 1.2% who are covered but don't want to be a union member. I see that you're not happy about that, and I do understand that, but you could live in a country like France, where 11% are union members, but 90% are covered by collective bargaining.
Hope that at least clarifies what the argument is.