The outrage over the right-to-work legislation in Michigan is easy to understand from a political perspective, but it makes little sense philosophically.
Companies should be permitted to establish wage rates and working conditions, and individuals should be free to accept or reject what companies offer. A “market wage” occurs when companies raise wages and benefits enough to attract a sufficient number of workers. Collusion on either side of the negotiation distorts this process. But why do some think it is wrong for employers to conspire to keep wages below a certain level, but not for workers to conspire to force employers to pay above a certain level? The truth is that collective bargaining gives workers some collusion rights that employers don’t have.
Although it distorts the market is some ways, I do not oppose collective bargaining rights, as I believe individuals have the right to voluntarily submit to the collective–the union–instead of negotiating their own terms of employment. Doing so has its costs, however, as collective bargaining reduces individual incentive and tends to treat all of the individual workers like average workers. Nonetheless, this is a choice that workers can make to their benefit or detriment.
But this choice must work in both directions. Right-to-work legislation prohibits collective bargaining agreements that force workers to join a union–and pay union dues–as a condition of employment. Those who oppose right-to-work laws are restricting a fundamental individual right. They argue that non-union workers should not enjoy higher wages and benefits from a union contract without paying the dues. While this argument is plausible on the surface, it fails to recognize the fact that free societies create numerous benefits for individuals who do not pay for them. Non-voters benefit from the efforts of voters to hold politicians accountable every election. Lawful gun owners create security benefits for non-owners who choose not to carry a firearm. Anyone can watch NFL games in HDTV every Sunday afternoon without ever purchasing a game ticket or supporting a sponsors. Everyone benefits from this byproduct of individual liberty, and it is a proper role of government to ensure that individual employment decisions not be restricted on this basis.
As with most arguments from the left, the real issue is not fairness, but class warfare and wealth redistribution. Ironically, the most strident opponents of right-to-work laws–the Democrats–are clamoring for even higher tax rates on top wage earners while 47% of the population enjoys the benefits of government services without paying income taxes.