Why do you shop at Sam’s Club? Is it because you believe that you can get a better deal there than at other stores in your area?
But you also pay a membership fee for this privilege, correct? Your right to shop at Sam’s Club is dependent on your being a member — paying the $40 per year fee required, so you may purchase those items of your choosing. This membership fee, you might claim, gives Sam’s Club the ability to keep prices low.
So would it be fair to allow those who have not paid for membership to shop at the store, to reap the same benefits that Sam’s Club members get? We suspect that most of you would answer no; that with membership come certain rights — a privilege — that should not be afforded to those who are not members. After all, if you have to pay for that right, others should have to also.
So, how is the Sam’s Club membership fee different than the fee that labor unions charge their members? Oh, right. In some states you now do not have to pay the union fee to get the union benefits.
This is the debate currently being played out across the nation, most recently in Michigan when the governor supported right-to-work legislation. What that legislation does is remove a requirement that currently compels workers who choose not to join a union to still pay union dues. Such a provision ultimately undermines the power of unions by creating a free-rider problem, granting people the benefits of unionization without them having to bear the cost.
Of the 74,000 Maine workers, or 13.4 percent, represented by a union in 2011, only 63,000 of them, or 11.3 percent, were dues-paying union members: 11,000 workers did not report union membership but directly benefited from representation. The odds are that a considerable number of Maine workers beyond this group have benefited indirectly from the work norms that unions have fought hard to establish. Among them are paid leave and vacation time, employer-supported health insurance, pension plans and the assurance of fair wages in a safe working environment.
Importantly, unions have long been at the forefront of efforts to negotiate higher wages and more favorable working conditions that have ultimately benefited all workers, including those not unionized. Unions have played a pivotal role not only in securing workplace safety standards but in ending child labor practices as well. They introduced collective bargaining for fair wages and hours and benefits, and they worked to secure workers’ rights, including employee representation and the establishment of grievance procedures.
In Maine, more than 32 unions actively serve a broad array of professionals: Among them are building and construction workers, office workers, plumbers and pipefitters, service employees and food workers, nurses, teachers, electricians and state workers.
Mainers’ longstanding traditions of association and collaboration have enabled them to obtain more value from limited incomes. Farmers’ cooperatives, homeowners’ associations and buying clubs have long been a part of economic life throughout Maine, alongside core values of self-reliance and independence.
We know that economic progress results when intellectual, entrepreneurial, managerial and labor power are combined to produce the goods and services necessary to satisfy society’s wants and needs. When the rewards earned from these endeavors are distributed fairly, each contributor advances and remains committed to the collaboration.
That fundamental bargain, once responsible for creating unprecedented economic mobility and America’s middle class has, however, been broken. The real wages and diminished purchasing power of American workers has been stagnant for some time now. Conversely, America’s CEOs and star entrepreneurs have greatly benefited from rising salaries and capital gains spurred by rapidly rising productivity and the passage of regulations gained through asserting political influence.
Organized labor has not fared as well and has been steadily under attack. Shifts from a manufacturing to service economy have taken their toll on union membership. At its peak in the 1960s, nearly 35 percent of U.S. workers were unionized compared with about 12 percent today. In spite of stagnating wages and growing job insecurity, unions have not made headway in organizing workers in emerging industries.
Labor unions are now being vilified as obstructionists to economic growth. And states’ quest to attract new businesses has led to renewed efforts in passing right-to-work legislation. With the recent addition of Michigan, there are now 24 states with right-to-work legislation. National studies show that workers in these right-to-work states average about $1,500 less per year in wages than do those in states without such a law.
While proponents of right-to-work legislation say states come out economically stronger in the end, nothing about this legislation creates well-paying jobs or ensures safe working conditions. What it really does is undermine the standards that unions have worked so hard to secure for American workers.
John Dorrer is former acting commissioner and director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information at the Maine Department of Labor. He now works on issues of workforce development with Jobs for the Future in Boston. Luisa S. Deprez is professor of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. Both are members of Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.