POLITICS

Major media outlets fail to explain what right-to-work laws do

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Photo - Michigan State Police push the crowd back outside the George W. Romney Office Building in Lansing, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. Thousands of protesters rallied outside the state Capitol as lawmakers pushed final versions of right-to-work legislation. The GOP majority has used its superior numbers and backing from Gov. Rick Snyder to speed the legislation through the House and Senate last week, brushing aside denunciations and walkouts by helpless Democrats and cries of outrage from union activists who swarmed the state Capitol hallways and grounds. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan State Police push the crowd back outside the George W. Romney Office Building in Lansing, Mich., Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012. Thousands of protesters rallied outside the state Capitol as lawmakers pushed final versions of right-to-work legislation. The GOP majority has used its superior numbers and backing from Gov. Rick Snyder to speed the legislation through the House and Senate last week, brushing aside denunciations and walkouts by helpless Democrats and cries of outrage from union activists who swarmed the state Capitol hallways and grounds. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,Politics Digest

My column in today’s paper is about how critics of right-to-work laws almost never bother to explain exactly what the laws do. That’s because a clear explanation tends to undermine the critics’ cases, revealing that they are essentially arguing for the right of Big Labor to force people to support unions financially even if they don’t want to join one.

I was curious therefore to see how most media outlets would describe right-to-work in their stories about Michigan becoming the 24th state to adopt such a law. Conservatives may be surprised, but the New York Times had it exactly right:

But advocates of the legislation, which outlaws requirements that workers pay fees to unions as a condition of employment, lauded the day as a historic turning point for economic health in Michigan, and some Republicans predicted that their victory here would embolden other states to enact similar measures.

It was one of the few I saw that bothered to explain the coercive nature of “closed shop” rules and how that impinged on workers’ rights. Most other news outlets failed to do that. They generally gave readers the impression the law allowed workers to renege on paying money they had promised to the unions.

For example, here’s how it is described in today’s front-page Washington Post story:

As thousands of angry union members shouted their opposition outside the state Capitol in Lansing, the Republican-controlled legislature completed work on two measures to ban unions from requiring workers to pay membership dues. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) then signed them into law Tuesday evening. (Emphasis added)

That’s technically accurate but the description does not clarify that the workers are not paying dues because they don’t want to be union members in the first place. Instead it implies the workers joined but have slacked off on paying their dues and the union is just trying collect what the workers promised it.

A story on CNN’s website also fails to clarify that the workers it affects don’t want to belong to a union.

The Republican-controlled state House passed two bills that had already been approved by the GOP-dominated state Senate. Gov. Rick Snyder, also a Republican, is poised to sign the bill, which would allow workers at union-represented employers to forgo paying dues.

ABC news also doesn’t explain “closed shop” rules, again giving the impression that workers are members weaseling out of paying what they promised the union.

Earlier on Tuesday the GOP controlled state house approved a law that would make the payment of union dues voluntary for private-sector unions and most public-sector unions (police and firefighters would be exempt.)

Here’s how TPM.com described it:

The legislation allows non-union members of union shops to withhold payments to unions that are currently required. Unions will still collect dues from active members.

Well, by describing it as involving “payments that are currently required” it makes it sound like the worker has some contract with the union and owes it something rather than the union simply having the power to demand payment.

MSNBC’s version appears to have come directly from a union group’s talking points:

When the new rules take effect, probably in late March, Michigan — one of the most union-friendly states in the country —will become the 24th “right to work” state, making payment of union dues voluntary even though the union negotiates on a worker’s behalf.

Not only does this one not explain closed shop union rules, it adds “even though the union negotiates on a worker’s behalf” at the end to hammer home the impression the workers are ripping off the union.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., tries to address the free market argument for right-to-work in the Detroit Free Press and proceeds to tie himself into knots:

The governor has said that under current law Michigan workers “have to join a union and pay dues” and that if they choose not to they “can lose their jobs.” In fact, for many decades federal and state laws have made it clear that no one is required to join a union or to pay dues. And no one can lose his or her job for refusing to do so. Workers pay dues if they join the union, but if they choose not to, the most that can be required of them — if it is negotiated into the contract by labor and management — is that they pay an “agency fee” for their share of administering the contract.

So, you see, they don’t have to pay dues to a union. They have to pay an “agency fee”! And this is different because … how, congressman?

In fairness to Levin, it is true that those nonunion workers can demand that they not be dunned for non-collective bargaining-related expenses by union. Of course, unions also fight tooth and nail to make that as hard as possible.

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