Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The Union Free Rider and the Orphaned Stalker

Jerry Stratton, February 1, 2015

I don’t actually have a strong feeling on private sector unions1, but a meme I just saw on Facebook seems to claim that unions are disadvantaged because, after forcing all employees to give up their bargaining rights to the union, it’s the union that is hurt by free riders. That’s the epitome of arrogance. No one can legitimately force a service on people and then complain that the recipients are unwilling to pay.

Except unions, apparently.

“I called the Chamber of Commerce today and asked to join without paying dues. They said that’s not fair to other dues-paying members of the Chamber and denied me.”

How is that different from Right to Work?

Normally I would try to create an equivalent meme that adheres to reality, but this is so thoughtless I can’t think of any real world examples. Even Ma Bell in the heyday of her monopoly never forced everyone to pay for phones whether they wanted a phone or not.

Right-to-work means that you can get a job at organization A without being forced to pay dues to organization B. The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t force businesses to join, and even though the Chamber of Commerce most likely thinks their work benefits all businesses, they don’t try to force all businesses in their locality to become members and pay dues.

Right to work does not force unions to benefit non-members. Unions do. This is called exclusive representation and it is separate from right-to-work. Where exclusive representation is required, it is required because unions forced it, either by bargaining with private organizations, or by bargaining with the governments that employ government employees.

And exclusive representation means what it says: it means that the union holds the exclusive rights to represent all employees at the business or department. Not just that unions must negotiate benefits even for non-members, but that non-members are forbidden from negotiating on their own behalf. Normally, employees who improve their skill set, employees who work harder, negotiate higher salaries or better benefits or better work hours or different work hours from their employers. Exclusive representation forbids this.

Unions want to force employees to join them, and even when employees aren’t forced to join them, they want to be the reluctant employee’s exclusive representative at the bargaining table. And then they want to force that employee to pay for a service they didn’t want in the first place.

I tried to come up with an analogy to a business forcing people to buy their products. Walmart, for example, since it does a lot of deliveries, using their political clout to negotiate exclusive rights to send packages to a neighborhood. Then they then choose to send packages to addresses that didn’t order anything. Then they lobby for more laws to make it mandatory that everyone pay for the packages, because those people getting packages without paying for it are free riders.

But even this analogy is a poor one. The entire concept of forcing the use of a service and then claiming a free-rider problem is so alien to the United States as to defy analogies.2

The closest example I can think of is the man who killed his parents asking for sympathy because he’s an orphan.

Exclusive representation is not forced on unions by Republicans or businesses. Unions want exclusive representation. They lobby for it on both the federal and state level, and lobby against ending it. They’ll couch it in terms such as “we want to care for all employees” but they want all employees to only be cared for by them, whether the employee wants it or not. It’s workplace stalking.

In Michigan, where I grew up, and so where I saw this meme posted on Facebook, at least one Michigan lawmaker proposed removing exclusive representation from government jobs. Michigan’s unions opposed it:

David Hecker—president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, the state’s second largest teachers union—said unions want exclusivity clauses “because we care about all working people.”

”When there are some who stop paying dues, we still care about them, and we want working people treated right,” said Hecker.

Public-sector employers would likely oppose eliminating exclusive representation, said Andrew Nickelhoff, labor attorney and general counsel for Michigan State AFL-CIO—an umbrella federation of unions.

”It’s worst for employers because they have to deal with a multitude of entities that claim to represent groups of employees,” Nickelhoff said.

Becker and Nickelhoff are disingenuous at best. They could still “care about all working people” and about what’s “worst for employers” without exclusivity clauses. What exclusivity clauses forbid is any of those working people they supposedly care about taking care of themselves.

Union member Terry Bowman has a better term for free riders:

Terry Bowman, a UAW member and president of Union Conservatives, says there is a better term for this kind of worker: a “forced rider.”

Even some union leaders recognize the nuttiness of granting a monopoly on representation.

Gary Casteel, the Southern region director for the United Auto Workers, says he prefers right-to-work environments for organizing.

“This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right to work hurts unions,” Casteel said in February. “To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to. So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds, because it’s a voluntary system, and if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.”

The mountain is high, the valley is low, and forced rider or free rider, it’s caused by unions forcing exclusive representation and then complaining that some nefarious party has forced exclusive representation. That nefarious party is themselves.

November 13, 2019: A free market in union representation

I tend to disagree with most conservatives about unions. For one, they tend to lump all unions together; but there is a huge difference between real unions, who negotiate with owners on behalf of their employee members for more money and better conditions from the owners, and government unions, who negotiate with employees on behalf of other employees for more money from taxpayers. This is critical, because real unions have an incentive to make sure that the business their members work in stays competitive. There is no such incentive for government unions. Both ends of the table are negotiating with other people’s money.

Outside of government unions, however, the problem with unions is that they are set up as monopolies. Monopolies tend toward maintaining their monopoly rather than providing better service to the people forced to buy from them.

When people have a choice about what services they buy and who they buy it from, when services must compete, the people paying for those services are better off. They receive better service at a better price. When a service has a monopoly, when people are forced to buy that service and forced to buy it from one provider, the service always suffers, and badly. Worse, the people buying the service have no idea what they’re missing.

People had no idea what they were missing under AT&T's monopoly. Or under airline monopolies.1 Or electrical power monopolies. In every case so far, removal of government-sponsored monopolies in favor of choices has resulted in better products, better services, and better prices2. Even though in every case, many people complained that the change would be for the worse, that in this case a monopoly was necessary. They couldn’t see the benefits behind the forest of their fears.

There’s no reason to expect union monopolies to be any different. We have no idea what we’re missing because unions are monopolies. But history tells us that what we’re missing will be so amazing we won’t be able to remember how we lived without it once the monopoly ends.

Conservatives who oppose all unions instead of just government unions make the same mistake from the other end. They recognize how bad union monopolies are for workers, but have no idea what a healthy free market in union services would do for workers or the economy.

  1. Government unions—where two sets of government employees bargain with each other for taxpayer money—is crazy. It’s like me negotiating with my co-worker for how much money our employer is going to give us. Except, even then, we would have an incentive to keep our employer from going out of business. No one ever seems to care that way about taxpayers.

  2. It’s literally medieval thinking, harking back to the days when you couldn’t get a job without going through a guild or state-enforced chamber of commerce.

  1. <- 2015 in photos
  2. Texas 2015 ->