The ‘Free Rider’ MYTH

From the Washington Policy Center:

Key Findings

  1. In states with right-to-work laws, workers can choose not to join a union and not be fired. States without right-to-work laws force workers to pay union dues. They are “compelled riders.”
  2.  “Compelled riders” are forced to accept union representation even if they would prefer to represent themselves when negotiating with employers.
  3. Opponents of worker protections say non-union members are “free riders” who benefit from union representation without sharing in the cost.
  4. Federal law does not obligate unions to represent non-members.  Unions only represent non-union workers when union executives take on exclusive bargaining representation.
  5. Exclusive bargaining gives unions a monopoly. Employees may not represent themselves when negotiating with their employer, nor may any other union compete for membership.
  6.  In a case of circular reasoning, union executives use their monopoly position to compel workers to pay dues, then label these reluctant workers “free riders” when the workers say they don’t want union representation.
  7. The solution is a policy of Worker’s Choice; release public employees from unwanted union representation and relieve unions from providing services to workers who do not want them.
  8. Worker’s Choice would enable public sector employees to represent themselves. Unions would then negotiate separately on behalf of their own members.
  9. Worker’s Choice would serve the public interest because public-sector workers would not be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, and the civil rights of all workers would be protected.

The arguments against right-to-work claim such laws are designed to cripple unions by allowing “free riders” to take advantage of the representation and services provided by a union without sharing in the cost. Right-to-work opponents say federal law requires unions to represent all workers at a company, whether or not they pay union dues, leaving unions in an impossible situation.  As one union executive puts it:

“Under a right-to-work law, people could withdraw from the union and wouldn’t have to pay anything. But we are still obligated by federal law to represent them like we would represent a member.” 

This statement is not accurate.

Federal law does not obligate unions to represent non-members.  Under the National Labor Relations Act, unions can represent only their dues-paying members under a “members-only” contract.  The benefits secured under these contracts apply only to dues-paying members.  As noted by the former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board William Gould, “the law now permits ‘members-only’ bargaining for employees.”

Unions are only required to represent non-union workers if union executives choose to take on exclusive bargaining representation.  Exclusive bargaining representation gives unions a monopoly, because it specifies that only one union may organize and represent employees in a unit.  Employees may not represent themselves when negotiating with their employer, nor may any other union compete for membership.

This monopoly bargaining option means a union has decided to represent and negotiate on behalf of all employees in a company, regardless of whether every employee wants that representation. It also eliminates competition from other unions seeking to represent the same workers.

However, if unions opt for exclusive representation, the law then requires them to negotiate equally for all workers.  That is, as the exclusive representative, the union cannot negotiate a lower wage that discriminates against non-members.

If a union decides against exclusive monopoly bargaining, it is not required to represent non-members.  In that case only the members with a signed contract are required to pay dues and the union negotiates only for those members.  In practice unions almost always seek exclusive representation status, since it gives them a monopoly position in the workplace.

Download the entire policy note here.