Right to Work and the Free Rider Myth
Religion & Liberty Online

Right to Work and the Free Rider Myth

One of the strongest arguments against Right to Work legislation is that such laws exasperates the “free rider” problem. In the context of unions, a free rider is an employee who pays no union dues or agency shop fees, but nonetheless receives the same benefits of union representation as dues-payers. While this concern should not override an employee’s right of free association, it was a concern that, I had always thought was worth taking seriously.

But yesterday I discovered that there is no free rider problem unless a union explicitly chooses to create free riders.

Policy wonk extraordinaire Reihan Salam pointed out a helpful explanation by James Sherk:

Unions and their supporters argue that this unfairly forces them to represent workers who do not pay their share of collective-bargaining costs. They argue that right to work allows workers to enjoy the benefits of a union contract without paying for it. As Michigan state representative Tim Greimel told the Detroit News, “This really is not about so-called right to work or so-called freedom to work, it’s about freedom to freeload.”

That would be a fair point, if it were true. But it is not. The NLRA does not require unions to bargain as exclusive representatives. It enables them to do so — an important difference. Unions may bargain on behalf of every worker in the company. But the Supreme Court has ruled that the NLRA’s protections are “not limited to labor organizations which are entitled to recognition as exclusive bargaining agents of employees . . . ‘Members only’ contracts have long been recognized” (Retail Clerks v. Lion Dry Goods, 1962). Unions can negotiate contracts that apply only to dues-paying members and exclude non-dues-paying members. Their argument against right to work is untrue.

In other words, unions can completely eliminate the free rider problem by choosing to negotiate contracts only for union members. As Sherk notes, most union supporters do not know this is the case. But once they do, they must surely recognize that they’ve lost one of the most potent moral objections against Right to Work laws.

What then are they left with? What possible moral-based objections could they have for objecting to Right to Work laws

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).