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Clarifying facts in ‘right to work’

Posted Jan. 24, 2012, at 1:16 p.m.

There is a lot of recent buzz about Maine’s proposed right-to-work law and how it might benefit the state. In his Dec. 1 BDN column, Matthew Gagnon claims that right-to-work laws “at their most basic level … prohibit agreements between labor unions and employers which make membership in a union and payment of union dues a condition of employment.”

This statement is simply incorrect. It is already illegal to make membership in a union and payment of dues a condition of employment. Closed shops (in which a person must belong to a union in order to get a job) have been illegal for over 60 years, and union shops (in which a nonunion employee must join a union within a certain time frame after being hired) have been illegal for nearly 50 years.

In fact, in our country, it is not possible to be compelled to join a union in order to gain or maintain employment. It bears repeating: no one in the United States of America can be forced to join a union.

Union membership is, has been and will continue to be voluntary. Right-to-work laws do nothing to change this fact; what they do instead is take away the right of employers and unions to negotiate a union security clause, which allows unions to collect an agency fee from the nonmember employees that it represents.

This type of clause, which must be agreed to by both the employer and the union when negotiating a contract, requires that all employees — whether they belong to the union or not — bear the cost of negotiating and maintaining the contract. By law, the amount paid by nonmembers may only cover the cost that the union incurs in negotiating and maintaining a contract.

The cost to the employee, which is called an agency fee, can be as little as half of the amount that a full member would pay in dues, although it is more often around three-quarters of the amount.

It is important to note that a union security clause is completely optional. It is possible to negotiate a contract without one. For instance, federal employees who choose not to join a union do not pay an agency fee.

Eliminating the union security clause through right-to-work laws will not change the fact that all employees, regardless of whether they pay dues or not, are bound by the contract that is negotiated between the employer and the union. Nonmembers get the same pay, the same raises, the same benefits and the same improvements in the working environment that union members get, because the contract that the union negotiates covers members and nonmembers equally.

If an employer treats an employee unfairly and that person has a grievance, the union is legally bound to represent that employee whether they pay dues or not. That is fair: whether or not you are a member, the union protects all employees in the workplace equally.

Nonmembers do not and are not required to pay union dues. As mentioned previously, if nonmembers pay anything at all, it is significantly less than what union members pay. But because all employees are represented by the union when the contract is negotiated, and because all employees receive the benefits of working under a contract, all employees should bear the expense of negotiating and maintaining the contract.

That is fair: everyone who is bound by the contract should contribute.

Proponents of right-to-work laws such as the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation claim that right-to-work laws will enable a more business-friendly environment and lead to economic growth, but there is no indication that right-to-work laws actually accomplish these goals.

Both the highest and lowest unemployment rates are in right-to-work states, so these laws have no clear impact on economic growth that leads to job creation. However, right-to-work laws correlate strongly with decreased wages and lower median incomes. In other words, right-to-work laws do not help people get jobs, and they tend to reduce employee income.

Maine has rejected right-to-work six times in the past because Mainers understand fairness. The cost of negotiating and maintaining a contract that benefits all employees should be paid for by all employees. That’s fair. Maine doesn’t need right-to-work; we just need to get to work.

Kate Cuddy is a union member and volunteers in political activity to support unions. She lives in Hermon.

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