Do unions exist for the benefit of workers, or do workers exist for the benefit of unions? A judge in Lake County, Ind., ruled recently that it is the latter. Judge John Sedia said in a Sept. 5, 2013, ruling that his state’s right-to-work law, which prevents workers from being forced to join a union or pay dues to one as a condition of employment, violates a section in the state that bars the delivery of services “without just compensation.” The judge’s thinking went like this: Union contracts require them to represent all employees in a workplace. A worker not paying dues is stealing from the union.
It’s an absurd argument. What the judge ignored was the fact that it is the unions that demand their contracts with management cover all workers. Nothing forces them to make that demand. Courts have long recognized the validity of “members-only” contracts in which unions only represent people who voluntarily join. Unions don’t like such contracts because they generate less dues money. Consider Judge Sedia’s ruling from the perspective of an ordinary wage earner: That person gets a job only to find out he is obligated to support the company’s union, a long-standing arrangement the worker never had an opportunity to vote on in the first place.
For whatever reason, he balks because he can negotiate his own compensation, or he doesn’t the like the union’s favored political candidates and causes. Maybe he thinks the union is in bed with management. Then he discovers from a friend — because the union certainly didn’t tell him — that he has the right to quit the union. After going through all of the hassle to do this, a judge says, no, you can’t do that because the union has a right to your money. Why? Because they demanded that in their contract with management.
The Indiana case isn’t over because the attorney general will appeal the decision to the state supreme court. This is worth watching because it has national implications. Should the union’s legal argument prevail, expect it to become one of the main tools Big Labor uses to push back against the right- to-work campaign.
Michigan’s legislature passed a right-to-work law last year. That followed similar, though more limited, efforts in Ohio and Wisconsin. Unions rolled back Ohio’s law in a voter referendum, but they have struggled in other traditionally union-friendly states. The debate puts them in the awkward position of arguing that individual workers should have no say in whether they join a union. So unions have turned to the courts to say it for them.
The Indiana AG reportedly may argue that Judge Sedia was wrong because the state constitution provision he cited applies to individuals, rather than unions. The state would be better off highlighting that the only people insisting unions have to represent all workers are the unions themselves. After all, guaranteeing individuals this choice is the whole point of right-to-work laws.