By Dave Lindorff
The wailing you hear from public sector unions and from trade unions in general in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Wednesday Janus decision banning the mandatory payment of fees to unions by workers who choose not to join them in the public sector is overwrought. In many states with strong public sector unions, this has been the case long before this ruling came down.
It’s also the way things have long been for unions in the private sector, as “open-shop” rules, called “right-to-work” rules by their advocates, have become increasingly popular with state legislatures. Nevada, for example, has had an “open-shop” or “right-to-work” law on the books since 1952 and unions remain strong and common in that state.
It is certainly true that having an “open-shop” rule banning contracts that require all employees to join the union once one is formed at a company, or in the case of public sector unions, at some government or university workplace, can make organizing new workers harder, and can put a financial strain on unions which also by law have to represent all workers, for example those who have a grievance with the employer, whether or not they are full dues-paying members.
But there is a downside too to the once wide-spread practice of negotiating contracts requiring all member in a unionized workplace to join the union, or to pay some kind of agency fee to the union in lieu of dues in the case of workers who simply don’t want to be union members. That downside is that it encouraged a shift during the last half century or more away from unions as part of a vast political movement of workers to a kind of business-unionism featuring well-compensated executives and staff, costly office buildings, and expensive annual conferences held in places like Orlando or New Orleans or Las Vegas — generally all-expenses-paid for those attending as representatives of their locals.
One big problem is that if it has a closed shop at a workplace, the union doesn’t have to go to work to organize those workers who don’t want to join. It has their money, and all too often, that’s all union leaders care about since it pays their salaries and perks. But a union that only has 50-60% of a workforce as willing dues-paying members is not a strong union. It can’t count on the other 40-50 percent of non-willing members to support a strike, for instance. Far better to work and earn the support of those members than to just compel them to pay dues or agency fees and remain disgruntled about the union.
Such business unions then often have also lost their democratic roots, and have become sinecures for comfortable union leaders…
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