The collective bargaining monopoly is a disservice to public workers

Michael Schaus

The monopoly power that labor unions have over a workplace is something that no one — not even the rank-and-file union members themselves — particularly enjoy.

This point comes into focus every year during National Employee Freedom Week (August 18 – 24), when government employees are reminded of their right to “opt out” of membership if they don’t want to financially support their union.

Labor leaders have long decried the alleged “free rider” problem with workers exercising this right, and such animosity was once again on display last month.

However, the truth is, the “free rider” phenomenon only exists because of the monopoly power given to unions by local governments — something union leadership itself has helped put in place.

The issue in Nevada is a decades-old state labor law — NRS 288.160 — which mandates that a government employer certify a union as “the exclusive bargaining agent of the local government employees” once majority support of the union has been established.

In other words, once a union wins an election, it receives monopoly power to represent all workers — even those unwilling to pay dues. As a result, when a worker opts out of membership, as many teachers do every July, they nonetheless remain beholden to the union contract that labor leaders have negotiated.

It’s easy to see how both union members, as well as non-union workers, find fault with this status quo. And it’s precisely why Workers’ Choice — a policy which allows workers to opt-out of a union and represent themselves in contract negotiations — has broad support among both groups of workers.

Take for example an employee who already has adequate health insurance offered through her spouse’s job. Shouldn’t she be able to ask her government employer for a small increase in pay in exchange for refusing health coverage? Or maybe another worker would rather have a few more vacation days than a scheduled pay raise — should he not have the right, as most workers have in the private sector, to work out a compromise with his employer?

Such individual agreements are already commonplace in the non-union private sector — however, without Workers Choice, such simple negotiations are forbidden in Nevada government workplaces where employees are represented by a monopoly union.

Of course, dues-paying members also have reason to dislike the current state of affairs. From their perspective, it is unfair that their non-union coworkers are enjoying the same ostensible benefits of collective bargaining, despite not financially supporting the very organization doing the negotiations.

Additionally, this monopoly power granted to unions goes even further in damaging the rights of workers to freely associate (or dissociate) with a union. It prohibits the ability for workers to seek out any alternative representation, giving the controlling union virtually no market incentives to increase the value members receive from their dues.

The result is that large groups of workers are left unhappy with their current representation, with no way to escape it. We see this happening with teachers across the state — many of whom have decided to opt out of membership but are still stuck under the union-negotiated contracts. In Clark County, for example, roughly 45 percent of teachers and more than 70 percent of support staff have opted out of paying dues, according to figures provided by the school district.

It’s unsurprising that such large numbers of workers are apparently unhappy with the current representation. Common sense says the union’s one-size-fits-all monopolistic approach can’t possibly serve the interests of every individual worker. This is one of the reasons that, in the private sector, monopoly representation is a quickly fading concept.

Just as no worker should be forced to financially support an organization with which they disagree — a principle that was affirmed in the Supreme Court just one year ago in Janus v. AFSCME — no employee should be forced to accept representation from that organization either. They should be free to represent themselves in contract negotiations when they opt-out of union membership, and free to have the same flexibility the majority of private-sector workers have when it comes to dealing with their employer.

Unfortunately, rather than embracing policies that empower workers in such a way, labor leadership around the country has gone the other direction — focusing on expanding its monopoly over the workforce by repealing right-to-work laws and narrowing opportunities for members to opt out.

Such an approach is a disservice to all the workers those labor leaders claim to represent — regardless of who pays dues.

This article was originally published by the Nevada Business Magazine.